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Taken by Storm PDF Print E-mail
Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
October 2017

Downtown residents demand change after Irma

IPix_EleazarMelendez_10-17t’s not the kind of request the City of Miami’s Public Works Department usually deals with: The news crew, standing in calf-deep waters, asked if city workers were getting ready to work on opening up a drain a few hundred feet west of S. Miami Avenue.

If so, a producer for the nationally televised morning news show asked, would it be possible to wait a few minutes?

The reporter was about to go live at that moment with a story about how the Main Street of Miami’s financial district had just hours before turned into a raging river -- something his viewers across the nation would find rather hard to believe if the drainage system were to ruin the obligatory wide-angle shot of the TV correspondent standing in floodwaters.

Such was the scene a few hours after Hurricane Irma dealt a close call to Miami and the rest of South Florida before the massive storm took a last-minute detour that steered the most destructive path away and toward the state’s left coast.

Even so, Irma delivered tropical-storm-force winds and rain here, and spewed a bevy of tornadoes across two counties. The storm was also remarkable for the images it produced of Brickell Avenue completely submerged under several feet of water.

Residents in condo towers who had chosen to ride out the hurricane in place posted unbelievable footage that seemed to indicate much of Brickell was now an extension of Biscayne Bay. It was the stuff of viral news clips: palm trees swaying in strong winds and violent whitecaps churning the turbulent brownish waters that reached halfway up traffic signs.

Yet just as dramatically as those floodwaters has rushed in, they left. The city’s pump system -- whose efficiency had been put into some doubt just a few weeks before, when an unexpectedly heavy downpour caused gridlock-generating floods in the same areas of the city core -- seems to have come through this time.

Those who have lived in Brickell for over a decade, an unfathomably long time for a neighborhood that seems to reinvent itself and turn over its entire population every few years, remarked that the floodwaters went out much more quickly than they had when Hurricane Wilma struck in 2005. Some restaurants and bars on S. Bayshore Drive opened the day after Irma passed, as if nothing had happened.

So little impact did the residents of Brickell get, for the most part, that a prominent real estate broker hosting a hurricane party complained bitterly on social media about what to him was an unnecessary curfew keeping people from getting to his high-rise on the evening Irma was passing through. Never mind the fact 40-mph gusts were still buffeting the streets.

Across the river from Brickell, downtown also came through relatively unscathed. Sure, poor storm drainage turned what used to be the Miami Herald site into a slice of the Everglades for a few days, complete with mosquitos swarming over brackish puddles and the occasional ibis pecking through for food. Yet most of Miami’s center never even lost power.

The biggest inconvenience, most high-rise dwellers found out, was having their elevators shut down for a day two so that engineers could come in and verify the storm hadn’t damaged any of the mechanical equipment that usually goes on such these buildings’ roofs.

Flagler Street was littered with the remnants of storefront awnings that hadn’t been properly secured, and the homeless who decided to leave the shelters as soon as the winds died down mostly wandered aimlessly about in streets devoid of the usual workday bustle.

But some businesses just picked up as if nothing had happened. Along 1st Avenue, a cafeteria did brisk business in cortaditos and empanadas the morning after the storm, while a local barbecue joint only stopped selling brisket and doling out beers earlier than usual in order to comply with the city’s curfew.

By the weekend after the storm, a number of downtowners felt secure enough to put in a big presence at an effort organized by progressive do-gooders that was fanning out across Liberty City, Little Havana, Opa-locka, Homestead, and a few other disadvantaged communities in South Dade and the western part of the state, where residents simply can’t afford to spend a week without power and without working.

Those volunteers manned grill stations, categorized donations, carried food and ice and water back and forth, and gave hope to those who felt abandoned in Irma’s wake. While the mass mobilization was organized by Liberty City-based organizations, props are deserved here to, among others, my local political club, the Downtown Dems, who showed up in big numbers.

Downtown might not have suffered major damage or inconvenience from the storm, but it’s likely there, at the county’s government center, where Irma’s biggest effects will be felt locally.

A few days after Irma, a cadre of activists -- many of the same residents who’d been out there in the immediate aftermath of the storm feeding people and handing out donations of water and ice -- showed up to demand the county take storm preparation more seriously.

Their work, alongside those of people advocating for transit, brought the county’s highly choreographed budget approval process to a screeching halt. A heretofore unheard-of rejection of the proposed draft budget by county commissioners temporarily stumped the lawyers on the dais. (After Mayor Carlos Gimenez made arrogant and incorrect comments, dismissing the activists and suggesting they were lying about being out in the streets helping people, commissioners pulled a face-saving move to keep the process rolling: pledging to vote for the budget preliminarily, while promising to nuke it later if major changes weren’t made.)

It’s the second time in three years that grassroots activists have left the mayor with egg on his face around his budget priorities. And it’s making a difference.

A final plan will be bought up after this column goes to print, but a revision done after the county hall showdown nearly doubled reserve funding assigned to deal with Hurricane Irma.

While it was impressive to see Brickell Avenue clear up less than a day after major flooding, that right there -- the power to pick up and bounce back and demand change from our leaders -- is the real strength of downtown (and Miami’s) resilience.

While the cameras might want to focus on slightly staged views of flooded streets, being able to work for the residents who never make it to the TV reports, and making sure they don’t take the brunt of a disaster, is what makes a difference.

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