The last gusts of Hurricane Irma had barely quieted when Carlos Reyes arrived early Monday morning at the restaurant he manages in western Miami-Dade to find good news and bad. The bad: no electricity. The good: his small generator had kept some of the food coolers up and running. And the restaurant had an ample supply of propane gas.
“We’re going to open,” Reyes said to his cook, the only other person in the restaurant, who looked skeptical but nodded willingly.
“I decided to keep it simple and fast,” Reyes told the Miami Herald later in the week. “We’re only going to serve one thing — huevos criollos, eggs scrambled with ham, because it’s easy and quick to cook, and most people like eggs. And we had coffee, but only American coffee, no time to steam milk for Cuban coffee.”
By 8:30 a.m., a squadron of five waitresses had arrived, and the Luis Galindo’s Latin American Restaurant No. 2 at Coral Way and Southwest 107th Avenue was officially open for business. Within minutes, customers started trickling — and then flooding — in for breakfast. Less than 12 hours after the roaring gusts of Irma were scattering boats and utility poles around in a terrifying giant-sized game of jacks, South Florida was already getting back to work.
And while much of the job was being done on a grand scale by police and fire departments and the army of FPL repairmen who fanned out across the state, a good chunk of it came from individual acts of kindness or ingenuity — like that of Carlos Reyes, who in virtually the blink of an eye turned his restaurant into a mass-production food factory.
Reyes simply tore up his restaurant’s rulebook. With no hot water for washing dishes, everything was served in takeout containers and Styrofoam cups, with plastic picnic utensils. That solved another problem as well: it made it easy for customers to just take their food and walk away; the restaurant’s small dining room was stifling and unusable.
And customers there were, lots of them. Within minutes of opening, a few restless refugees from a hurricane shelter down the street had wandered in and excitedly passed the word back to the shelter. A line formed, grew to the edge of the restaurant parking lot, and then forged beyond to nearly a block long.
But though it took perhaps 20 minutes to wend through the line, it was two minutes or less for customers to get their food once it was ordered. The restaurant wasn’t cooking order by order, just constantly churning out masses of scrambled eggs and ham. Reyes soon gave up the front counter to help out on the overworked grill.
Most customers seemed to accept the one-item menu with equanimity. Some, though, were distressed that they couldn’t get Cuban coffee. In the early going, requests for cortaditos were met by Reyes shrugging helplessly and pleading, “Come on, man.” Eventually, waitresses began greeting each new customer with a warning: “Café, pero solamente Americano!” Coffee, but only American! They learned to ignore the pained expressions they got in return.
What wasn’t an obstacle: the cash-only policy mandated by the lack of electricity to operate credit-card machines. Often, one customer would help another who was a dollar or two short of the $7 price of breakfast. “Really, people behaved very well,” Reyes said.
Similar tableaux played out across Miami-Dade and Broward as residents blinked at their first glimpse of sunlight in three days, then got about the business of post-Irma life.
“You have to do some things yourself,” said Kendall Realtor Anthony Askowitz, with RE/MAX. “The government is not gonna take the tree branch out of your window. The government can do the grand things, but people can do little things. Help thy neighbor — we can do that.”
Askowitz, remembering how another big real-estate company offered free office space to displaced agents in the barren days after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, decided to do the same. His Tuesday Facebook post offering desks, telephones and cellphone recharging stations to businessmen without electricity, brought in about 50 people. By Wednesday, he was tossing in a free lunch. And he was delighted to see similar offers from other people sprout on social media.
“Miami can be a rough place,” he said. “But at the roots, almost everyone is good. That dark side can be formidable, but a lot of people are capable of doing good when things are tough, and that’s what you’re seeing around us right now.”
Some acts were spontaneous. When the sun came up Monday, a single block of Ortega Avenue, a small residential street on the north end of Coral Gables, looked like it had grown a forest during the storm: Big broken trees were stacked the length and width of the pavement.
About 9 a.m., a half-dozen shirtless young men emerged from homes on Ortega. One had a chainsaw, the other five heavy work gloves. Together they charged into the tangle of wood and foliage. Twenty minutes later, it was all cut and stacked by the side of the road, and the road was completely passable.
Then there was Maria Payor, hard at work cleaning up coconuts scattered across the Haulover Beach parking lot on Collins Avenue. She went to the beach hoping to relax in the water following the tension of the storm — but health officials warned her the water might be contaminated.
So instead she stacked the coconuts in the trunk of her car. Their water, maybe, would be helpful to neighbors in her North Miami Beach neighborhood. “We haven’t had electricity in three days,” Payor said wistfully.
She had plenty of company. For many whose cellphones, tablet computers and e-readers were, literally, powerless, malls and groceries provided more than purchase options: they offered both air-conditioned refuge and electrical recharge.
Along Lincoln Road, in the mostly ghostly food court of Dadeland, and in the picked-over aisles of supermarkets, power-deprived South Floridians could be seen hovering like vampires, sucking electricity from the walls.
One, Lourdes Casal of Coral Gables, practically moved into her neighborhood Publix when her power still hadn’t returned by Tuesday. She crouched along the wall of the Red Road store with a newly formed community of Irma refugees, all charging their phones and basking in the air-conditioning.
“I stayed until they closed,’’ Casal said the next morning, back at the store for another day of communing with the electromagnetic spectrum. “When I saw they were putting the chairs back, I had to go back to my dark home and that horrible existence.”
On Wednesday, she crouched again on the store’s terrazzo floor. At 11 a.m. Wednesday, Casal was back. She read the Miami Herald, dispatched her husband Sig to the deli to get a sub and kibbitzed with her fellow cellphone mates.
No one complained. The store manager, Freddy Cazanove, walked over, trailed by some of his employees, all carrying chairs from the in-store cafe.
“Here, sit, I don’t want you to sit on the floor,”' he said. “We want to help any way we can. This is our community.’’
The other half dozen or so welcomed the chairs.
“I like the cold floor,” she confided. “It feels great.”
Chairs weren’t the only perks merchants provided to power prospectors. The Kendall dental office Beautiful Smiles By Design invited people in to juice up their cellphones and — appropriately — use the running water to brush their teeth.
Generosity cut both ways among merchants and their customers. When the denizens of the The Octopus Garden on Hollywood Boulevard showed up for their regular early-morning debauchery on Monday, they were dismayed to discover it dark and lifeless.
One of them promptly went home and returned with a generator. Long before anything else was open along the street, the air around The Octopus echoed with the sounds of cold fizzing beer, raucous jukebox tunes and serious philosophical disquisitions on which is the best Journey record.
Owner Barrett Windish took a shucks-it-was-nothing view of getting his bar open so quickly.
“We will be open until 4 a.m. We’re open till 4 a.m. every day, even Christmas and Thanksgiving,” he said. “If your wife kicks you out on Christmas Day, come on down, we have Christmas dinner here and on Thanksgiving, too.”
If that seems like a peculiarly South Florida tale of ingenuity, it wasn’t the only one. Facebook bristled with examples of homemade counter-hurricane technology spotted in Hialeah: Lawn furniture and collapsed cafeteria tables nailed over windows. Cars with their tires raised on cinder-blocks to fend off floodwaters. Cars swathed tightly in plastic wrapping, like suitcases at the airport. Roofs tied down with ropes.
And generosity didn’t stop at the edge of South Florida or even the state line.
Max Pearl, a Miami man who runs a tutoring service for remedial students, headed to Georgia to stay out of the way of Irma. As he took an exit ramp off Interstate 75 in Macon, he was dismayed to see what looked like some sort of political protest ahead — the ramp was lined with men women and children, all waving signs. As he got closer, he finally was able to read one: WELCOME FLORIDA EVACUEES. FREE FOOD AND SUPPLIES.
“As I stopped the car approaching the light, a group of them came right next to my car with hands full of containers filled with meals, water, even dog food,” Pearl said. He wanted to say, “thank you,” but instead, he cried.
Connie Ogle, Joey Flechas, Lance Dixon, Elizabeth Koh, Carol Rosenberg and Grace Tamayo contributed to this report.