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Storm speak

By Terry Joseph
September 17, 2004

Arriving last Friday in Florida, between unwelcome visits by hurricanes Charley and Frances and Ivan's threat, presented a collage of distress and anxiety; a horror picture with an even more eerie soundtrack.

Because if, like me, you thought only late-night network television could wrest comedy from catastrophe, Florida topped the ratings with "off the hook" punch lines, in which political correctness was the least consideration.

On our first stop inside Florida, an elderly couple at the otherwise deserted but sprawling St Augustine Mall explained the absence of regular patronage: "They're still cleaning up," opined the husband. "Which is more than we can say about these store owners," was his wife's rejoinder.

But impromptu vaudeville hardly reflected the mood we gleaned en route, admonitions later collaborated by twisted billboards, flattened pine trees and traffic lights of once definitive colours, sentenced to darkness by lack of electricity, hanging by the neck, hoping for reprieve from emergency crews.

From as far north as South Carolina, morbid descriptions of the Florida scenario dominated the airwaves. Beaming from the relative safety of Atlanta, Georgia, FM100.1 frequently repeated warnings to inbound visitors about food shortages and the need to boil drinking water.

On the ground, seemingly insensitive gas stations posted large placards advertising the wisdom of filling up before hitting the Sunshine State, some ruthlessly capitalising on the plight of their southern neighbour, one asking outright: "Why go to Florida?"

We left the north in fair conditions Thursday and although travelling Interstate Highway 95 (for the most part) threw up some violent weather variations on occasion, including riveting rain, dense fog and low cloud cover during the night, Friday dawned splendidly and remained sunny.

When we finally got to Orlando-after some 21 hours on the road from Edison, New Jersey-our prearranged accommodation was "currently" unavailable, an inexpensive pun invoked to explain that the building had been hit by Frances; its power supply a casualty of that encounter.

The ghost of Frances and spectre of Ivan influenced conversation everywhere but bereft of expected awe and nowhere more so than at the political level.

White House aspirant Ralph Nader was no longer merely ineligible but now described by adversaries as "blown off the Florida ballot".

Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell suggested one of the most unsafe places during a hurricane was between a politician and a television camera.

He quoted a press release from the office of Mayor Buddy Dyer that not only indicated how hard hizzoner worked but identified (in bold type) the pinnacle of this tremendous sacrifice as missing a call from John Kerry.

Council Member Vicki Vargo e-mailed all her constituents, urging help for residents with special needs living alone, giving detailed directions to their addresses and details of physical disabilities which, police said, was information so thorough it lacked only a formal invitation to loot such homes.

Some of her colleagues were moved to song. Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary did a music video with hurricane aftermath scenes set to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On", Osceola Mayor Scott Vandergrift's slide show of smashed cars and felled trees was backed by "The William Tell Overture" and Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty chose a rap by Vanilla Ice which, one talk-show host suggested, made his constituents suffer twice.

In his own defence, Crotty made the rounds of voice and vision media, detailing the breadth of his responsibility and response, including the story of a woman who called during the height of Frances to ask whether she could sue a barber for giving her son a bad haircut.

Topping the list of untimely comments was that of Florida's Transportation Association President Keith Lee Rupp who, even as television news tickers dedicated the bottom of the screen to critical information, towered above it all to tout his perennial contention for high-speed trains, using the tactless argument that evacuation would be a "walk in the park" during future disasters.

Among the more reasoned submissions, however, was a tabulation of donations to political campaigns by Florida's insurance industry over the past few years, a move rewarded since 2002 by legislation requiring hurricane victims to scare up as high as five per cent of insured value as deductibles that hitherto peaked at US$1,000.

Topping the list of beneficiaries is the Republican Party which has, over the past four years, warmly welcomed more than US $3.7 million from this source, with President Bush's campaign singularly receiving about $218,000.

To his credit, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother, swiftly announced "contemplation" of a recall of the legislation, although some say this aspect of his empathy may have been inspired by George W's politically fragile position in the State.

Whether or not J Bush really plans to deliver, or he too was indulging in storm speak, mere "consideration" offered a silver lining, one suddenly in danger of swift corrosion as the powerful hurricane swerved midweek, shifting toward New Orleans and Alabama.

But even as Florida's anxiety relaxed somewhat with news of Ivan's track-change and however slight a waning in its force, observers felt equally dangerous storm speak could escalate-perhaps to a category six.

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