tampabay.com

After a real fright, joy in the fun kind

By SUE CARLTON
Published November 1, 2005


PEMBROKE PINES - Party City had no power, but that didn't stop the ninjas.

Exactly one week after Hurricane Wilma savaged her way through here, Halloween arrived on time as if nothing had happened.

And the kids of Broward County's suburbs seemed ready, for costumes and candy and one step back toward normal.

Even before noon, families gathered outside the darkened party store, scanning pictures of the available costumes posted on the store's windows. Then they ordered them from clerks at a makeshift table set up outside.

To be a pirate, or a princess? Something called a "Stealth Ninja" appeared to be a hot pick.

On the radio, a DJ was urging against traditional door-to-do trick or treating, with power still out in some places and towering piles of debris everywhere. He repeated lists of malls and community centers hosting Halloween parties.

Jermaine Smith told me his 8-year-old son Bryce would be wearing his ninja costume, with all its appropriate plastic accessories, to their Miramar neighborhood's clubhouse. His house was brightened with a generator, a good investment for living here, he said.

"When it gets dark here," he said, "it's really dark."

Waiting for her kids' costumes - a prisoner, and a pirate - Desiree McCluskey told me her family never expected the devastation they walked out into after the storm. They lost power for two days, and her police officer husband was working 13-hour shifts.

"Everything stops," she said.

Her neighborhood was lit up enough now for her kids to trick or treat, and for that she was happy. "It just threw us off our routine," she said. "It was a hard experience."

Slowly, many of the things that have made the last week so surreal - the power outages, the nightmarishly long lines for gas, the boil water notices - are dwindling. Still, there are strange sights everywhere: a stop sign with its stem twisted into a knot, a fallen banyan tree exposing a root system high as a house, a satellite dish crumpled like a paper plate. The place looks plucked bare.

Stranger still is Wilma's utter randomness. A house that lost a chunk of roof sits next to one where a tree flattened a car out front, next door to three houses that appear unscathed. Next door to them is a house with nothing but a blanket of blue tarp on top to keep the elements out.

Here's something that's also weird: If you learn to drive in South Florida, like I did, you get used to always having your foot on the gas for the very second the light changes. Don't get going fast enough and you invite honks, curses or worse. But here, the four-way stops where the traffic lights are out seem to be working for the most part. People are slow and deliberate and polite. Patient, even.

Normalcy is inside the Pembroke Lakes Mall, clean and air-conditioned chilly, with maybe a hint of mildew. The mall is packed like it's Christmas Eve. Little cheerleaders and frogs and superheroes and more ninjas run from store to store with fat plastic pumpkins, collecting mini Snickers and Tootsie Rolls.

Parents are talking about how school will start up again this week, and that's good even though the kids are enjoying their minivacation. A dad carries a tiny Snow White because her crystal slippers hurt.

For a few minutes, no one is talking about what happens if the rains come, when the branches and the garbage will be picked up, or what happens next.

--Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com