FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The grinding cacophony of chain saw on wood was the dominant sound all around the Fort Lauderdale area less than 24 hours after Hurricane Irma hit late Sunday afternoon, before heading to Florida’s west coast to inflict far more damage on the other side of the state.
This area was hit by dangerous 70-mph winds, gusting up to 90, but Irma was far less furious here than predicted a few days earlier. In its Fort Lauderdale-area wake, hundreds of thousands were left without power, without air conditioning, without WiFi and without the means to recharge their cellphones and computers.
Still, as of Monday morning, no hurricane-related deaths were reported, and most residents were breathing major sighs of relief that the storm was not as devastating as expected.
A 45-minute drive from an evacuation center in Pompano Beach and around the perimeter of the main Fort Lauderdale thoroughfares revealed no major surprises considering the fury of the storm.
There were downed power lines and poles, uprooted trees, palm fronds, branches and the occasional unripened green coconut littering streets all around. At noon, not a single shop, mall, supermarket, drugstore, restaurant or fast-food drive-through was open for business, though some workers were using power tools to remove plywood boarding from the windows of homes and businesses.
Broward County officials said schools could reopen later this week, and the Fort Lauderdale airport was scheduled to be operational as early as Tuesday.
No power in most areas also meant no traffic signals coming down U.S. 1, a main thoroughfare from Pompano Beach into Fort Lauderdale. Still, in an area known for its aggressive and often rude drivers, virtually everyone on the road was voluntarily stopping at intersections with nonoperational green or red lights and often courteously waving other motorists ahead of them.
There was a heavy police presence on the streets, particularly at a number of drawbridges over canals and the intracoastal waterway. Several bridges were closed leading to A1A, the road that runs parallel to the shore, save for essential emergency vehicles, Florida Power and Light crews and residents trying to get back to their beachfront condominiums or homes.
Flooding along A1A was the main concern, though there was not much of an ocean surge on Fort Lauderdale’s beaches. The Las Olas Boulevard bridge to the Fort Lauderdale beach was blocked to allow front-end loaders to remove a thick layer of sand, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Sand drifts about a foot high banked against the wave wall along the beach.
Farther inland, many lower-lying side streets were flooded with several feet of water, but many cars drove through them as if they were ordinary puddles, not major problems.
On Fort Lauderdale’s trendy downtown section on Las Olas, most of the damage also involved debris on the road. Several restaurant awnings, both canvas and metal frames, became dislodged in the winds, but virtually all the windows up and down the mile-long strip of shops, antique emporiums, restaurants and bars managed to survive, even those not boarded up or protected by metal grates.
At the Coral Ridge Yacht Club on the Intracoastal Waterway, every yacht — including a 100-footer owned by former Washington Redskins offensive lineman Vinnie Promuto — escaped mostly unscathed save for bumps and bruises incurred from wind-aided flying objects. There were scads of boats seemingly safely moored in canals winding through and around a city known as “the Venice of America.”
In Pompano Beach, the Broward County evacuation shelter at Pompano Beach High School started looking like the school cafeteria again Monday morning. By 10 a.m., all of the 225-plus temporary residents had departed, leaving behind a small staff that had managed the facility over the past five days and several sheriff’s deputies.
The shelter lost power about noon Sunday as the outer reaches of the storm approached. A generator kicked in, but only to power the fluorescent lighting in the building. That also meant no air conditioning, and as the day wore on, condensing water from the dramatic change in temperatures coated the linoleum floors, turning them into Florida-style skating rings. Several people slipped and fell, but there were no injuries. Eventually, long rolls of paper were put down, providing safer walking areas, and old newspapers were used to dry up the wet floors.
The contingent of eight deputies on duty at the shelter saw a little action Sunday. Someone complained that one of the evacuees was loitering around the two bathrooms in the facility, and it was determined he was a registered pedophile sex offender. He was taken out of the main area and placed in another part of the building under the supervision of several officers.
Just as the winds subsided, a young man was spotted trying to break into a vehicle in the parking lot about 100 yards from the shelter. First one, then a half-dozen officers raced out, chased him down and arrested him, drawing the applause from many people witnessing it from inside. The officers then perp-walked the 17-year-old juvenile through a gauntlet of evacuees watching it all unfold, then cursing the shirtless teenager in a half-dozen languages. One officer who declined to give his name said the young man was “falling-down drunk, didn’t know where he was. When he dries out, because he’s a juvenile, they’ll probably release him to his parents.”
As the shelter emptied out Monday morning, many departing residents walked up to staff members and police officers, shook their hands, patted them on the back and thanked them for their work over the previous days. Since Saturday, all of the staff and police officers were at the shelter around the clock, sleeping on the floor of a teachers lounge not far from the main cafeteria area.
Meanwhile back in Fort Lauderdale, the cleanup was beginning with Monday’s first light. On a warm, sunny day with mild breezes, over in Victoria Park, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Scott Keefe and his wife, Lynn, rode out the storm in their house with a few friends. Keefe said his power didn’t go out until about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, just as the storm seemed to be subsiding.
Then he walked out on the street and pointed to a utility pole three doors away that had come crashing down when a tree fell on the wires.
“We heard this crash, and then I guess the transformers exploded — boom, boom,” Keefe said. “That’s when we lost power. We’ve got tree damage, a lot of debris, just like everyone else. And no power. But I’ve got a generator, so we’ll manage fine.”
Then he added, just as most everyone else in this area was saying Monday, “Hey, it could have been a lot worse.”