A 24-hour curfew was in force Sunday in this oceanside town in the wake of Hurricane Frances, its 105-mph winds and torrential rain. So why were so many people lined up at the Super Stop grocery to buy sodas and cigarettes and snacks?
With a curfew in place, why were so many people driving U.S. 1 along the hard-hit Treasure Coast from Stuart to West Palm Beach, even though all the traffic lights were out and police cars were everywhere?
And why was West Palm Beach so full of cruising cars, despite a curfew announced on national television by the mayor and reported threats by the police to arrest anyone seen on the street?
Maybe because the damage from Hurricane Frances did not appear here to be as bad as predicted, or maybe because people had been cooped up for days or maybe because they just felt like it, thousands of Frances-weary Floridians went outside and got behind the wheel. During the daylight at least, the curfew turned out to be an order heard around the state -- and pretty much tuned out.
"What are they going to do? Arrest me?" asked Richardo Campo, wearing rain-streaked glasses as he waited in line at the Super Stop to purchase several snacks. "They do that, and then they'll have to feed me, too."
Another young man in the long line, carrying a soda, said with a smile: "Oh, there's a curfew today?"
But Susan Barry, with her three bottles of tea, had a good reason to be out. The kennel where her dog stayed during the storm had lost its roof, and she was among those helping to fix it. "Maybe I shouldn't be out now," she said, "but someone had to help out."
There was logic behind the curfews, imposed first by some municipalities and then several counties: With many power lines down, streets impassable because of fallen trees and potential danger lurking under floodwater on roadways, it was a public safety threat to have many motorists back on the roads. Officials also said drivers could interfere with cleanup and hookup efforts.
"I have a 24-hour curfew right here in West Palm Beach, and we have asked people to please, don't go out on the streets, because it is still very, very dangerous," West Palm Beach Mayor Lois J. Frankel said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Perhaps more threatening, however, was the approach of looters intent on stealing from damaged homes. Local officials said almost a dozen people had been arrested for either breaking into homes or acting suspiciously around evacuated residences since the owners left. Palm Beach County Sheriff Ed Bieluch said anyone coming into the area to steal "better have their toothbrush and teddy bear, because they're going to jail."
Indeed, the Stuart Super Stop was open only because someone had broken in Saturday night -- while the hurricane was in full fury -- and made off with thousands of dollars worth of phone cards, wine and cigarettes. Owner John Ahmed said a neighbor called Sunday morning to say that the shop's steel grating had been jimmied open and its front door smashed.
"I came quickly to see what happened, and it was very, very upsetting," said Ahmed, who has owned the store for three years. He called police, but before they arrived, customers walked through the door. He was unsure whether he should sell to them, since they were not supposed to be outside.
"When the police came, we asked if we could stay open because so many people said they needed emergency supplies," said Ahmed's wife, Mohsen Ara Ahmed. "They said it was okay to stay open, but just don't sell wine or beer."
Martin County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Baker, sitting at an empty gas station a few miles away, confirmed that the curfew was not something officers intended to enforce before dark. "Yes, the curfew notice is going out, but we were told not to do anything till after 8 or so. And what could we do now anyway? There are just so many people."
Officially, at least, West Palm Beach's Frankel took a harder line. "People are actually breaking through the boarding and trying to get into businesses," she said on CNN. "But we're going to be watching for them, and we are going to arrest people. And we have a strict curfew."
But West Palm Beach, despite dangling power lines and tons of debris, also had a lot of people on the streets Sunday. There was one checkpoint on the north end of the city, where a police officer checked all cars leaving and let most of them pass. Asked at 5:30 p.m. if there was a curfew in place, the officer replied, "Yes, kind of."
Nowhere does a curfew make more sense than when it comes to traffic. With power out in much of the eastern coast of South Florida, and with many traffic signals lying smashed on the ground, drivers were left to fend for themselves at intersections -- even the large and busy ones along U.S. 1. The official word was that everyone was supposed to stop at each intersection as if there were a yellow light, but that order was being observed as rigorously as the curfew. As a result, some people were driving Route 1 as if it were an interstate, while others drove it like a country road. The dangers were obvious, and by the end of the day, the number of accidents and near-accidents had grown.
But the roads remained busy with people heading to their homes, checking out their businesses and just getting out for a look around. Except for Super Stop and a handful of others, no businesses were open from Stuart to West Palm Beach. But it was easy to see why some people had taken their chances outside.
Consider the scene at the upscale Doubletree Hotel in Palm Beach Gardens. It was lunchtime, and guests were going to be served a meal heated by limited generator power. The scores of guests were asked to get in line, and each was given a foam cup. The cup would be filled with lentil and potato soup, supplemented by a soda.
Said one elderly man waiting his turn, "I haven't seen a food line like this since the Depression."