The Coastal Star

Around Town: Surf and FEMA job roll in with Sandy

A seagull rides the wind as champion surfer Kelly Slater braves the waves generated by Hurricane Sandy near Boynton Inlet. Photo by James Knill

By Thom Smith

     As Hurricane Sandy blew past, she didn’t seem like such a big deal. A little flooding here, a flattened seawall there. New Age musician Yanni lost his pool and lots of turtle nests were lost. Mother Nature doesn’t play favorites. Compared to past storms, however, damage was minimal.
    To Peter Mendia of West Palm Beach, whose life is surfing, Oct. 28 was the “day of days.”
    Mendia was hardly alone. The swell attracted Shea Lopez from Daytona, legendary Cocoa board builder Matt Kechele and his prize pupil, Kelly Slater, a world champ 11 times, to waves so big, so fast and so powerful that they used jet skis to launch them at Boynton Inlet and at Pump House in Palm Beach.
    Sandy plodded up the coast, and like every other storm, its siren song lured thousands of surfers and beachniks to the shore to marvel at its power. Little did they know just how powerful it would become, although it never did grow larger than Category 2. As I wrapped up my column for The Coastal Star’s November issue, it came ashore five miles south of Atlantic City with peak winds barely 90 miles an hour. A day later it was a rainy trough soaking Pennsylvania.
    Only 90 miles an hour. A few days later, my phone rang. It was FEMA, summoning me to my second deployment as a DAE (disaster assistance employee). I had two days to pack, put my affairs in order and head to New Jersey. For six weeks, as a writer in the Planning and Products division, I would work on press releases, how-to pamphlets, flood insurance fact sheets, and dozens of other documents that provide information to homeowners, businesses, government officials and FEMA staffers.  
    Even before the storm made landfall, FEMA was staging personnel and supplies. Within two weeks, headquarters had been set up in what was once a 350,000-square-foot Bell Labs facility in Lincroft, a hamlet in Monmouth County, only a few miles from the Jersey Shore. In less than a week, trucks laden with desks, tables, chairs, even toilet paper and towels were ready to go. The building was completely rewired for computers and telephones. Satellite receivers were erected in the parking lot. And in a matter of days, more than 2,000 FEMA workers — some permanent employees, some temps like me — were doing our part to help the people of New Jersey dig out, shore up and get on with their lives.
    FEMA maintains a contingent of more than 5,000 on-call employees around the nation who make themselves available for the temporary work. Usually, the work is regional: Californians handle their own mudslides and wildfires; Missourians respond to floods in the heartland. But Sandy’s damage was so extensive that DAEs were called in from everywhere.
My little group included two former Los Angeles Times writers, a newspaper writer from Lakeland, Fla., who had been embedded with troops in Iraq, a freelance writer who travels the globe, an advertising executive from Denver, linguists from Poland and Puerto Rico, a marketing consultant from North Carolina and a grandmother from Oregon. Many are retired federal employees who know the drill.
    One brand-new logistics officer was an Air Force retiree who had been a navigator on hurricane hunter planes after graduating from the Air Force Academy. She was from Iowa.
    Initial work week: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, with the 14th day off. Then it was cut to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Some work a few weeks and rotate out; others remain for months. The pay is decent, but not great. More important is the opportunity to help.
    Funny thing about Sandy: We all know about the roller coaster in the surf and the neighborhood burned out by ruptured gas lines, but in many areas you’d never know a storm blew through. A few trees down here, a damaged roof there. But just as with Andrew and Katrina, the rebuilding will take years.  
    It’s good to be home, but if the phone rings, I’ll be on the next flight out.
    What I would have given to take a train into the Big Apple on Dec. 4. Angelo Elia, the king of South Florida’s Italian cuisine, including D’Angelo Trattoria in Delray and Casa D’Angelo in Boca, cooked a meal at the James Beard House. His six-course, country-inspired Italian Christmas featured elk tartar with white alba truffle shavings, pheasant and faro soup, and baby octopus in a San Marzano tomato sauce with appropriate wines, including Jankara, a vermentino from his own winery in Sardinia.
    The menu was developed specifically for the Beard dinner, but occasionally he offers risotto carnaroli with taleggio and seasonal alba white truffle shavings as an “off-menu” special, possibly even at his newest restaurant, expected to open this spring at Addison Place on Jog Road in Delray Beach.
    Bam! No sooner had Angelo returned to warmer climes than another hot chef hit town. Emeril Lagasse was on a taping mission for his new Cooking Channel series Emeril’s Florida, which will feature a healthy number of Palm Beach County restaurants.
    “I think he enjoyed himself,” said Mark DeAtley, general manager at 50 Ocean and Boston’s on the Beach in Delray. 50 Ocean will be featured Feb. 17. The March 10 show will include 32 East in Delray, Buccan in Palm Beach, Swank Farms in Loxahatchee, Quantum House in West Palm Beach and Guanabanas in Jupiter, and the March 17 show, “Big Night Out,” stops at The Breakers’ new HMF bar.
Guests at the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach expect to be treated like princes and presidents, several of whom have spent a night or two there. But to Matt McGhee, chef de cuisine at the resort’s signature restaurant, Angle, an occasional surprise is good for the spirit.
McGhee — who spent the summer in New York brushing up on the latest culinary trends, coping in his last few days with Hurricane Sandy — strives to create a memorable dining experience for every guest. This might mean making selections directly from the menu, or winging it with a “spontaneous chef” table, created not only from the menu but also from special ingredients provided by local growers, with dish inspirations coming from just-caught seafood, from the rich Ritz-Carlton archives, or from his own mischievous mind.

Chef Matt McGhee greets patrons at Angle, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Manalapan. Thom Smith/The Coastal Star

Guests are seated at a dramatic onyx and amber table positioned in the center of the room —  literally becoming the center of attention — as McGhee personally confers with each to determine his or her likes and dislikes. He adjusts the six courses accordingly, and confers with the sommelier so each is accompanied by the appropriate wine.
If you don’t like beets, he won’t bring you a salad of heirloom beets, Loxahatchee goat cheese, passion fruit, red watercress and pistachios, but instead possibly grilled Floridian hearts of palm, green papaya, red kaiware and smoked pineapple vinaigrette.
Not keen on black tiger shrimp: How about Osetra caviar tacos instead? Other choices include krobuta pork belly, wood-grilled octopus, wild boar tenderloin or just plain Masami American Wagyu (Kobe-style) beef, flaming (literally) crème brûlée and carrot cake bread pudding with caramel brittle ice cream and ginger agave.
Sneakiest of all: butternut squash cappuccino. No coffee. No dairy cream. Yes butternut squash, pureed, spice faro and a little cocoa topped with popcorn crema.  
Dinner is $140, wine $60. Reservations (533-6000), obviously, are a must. You wouldn’t want to do it on Matt’s day off.
    She’s not the little girl we once knew. In 2001, Boca’s Morgan Pressel created quite a stir when she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old. On Jan. 19, Pressel, now 24, took another giant step at The Breakers when she married longtime boyfriend Andy Bush, a golf tournament manager for Octagon, a sports marketing firm. Bush, from Michigan, previously worked for Jack Nicklaus’ Golden Bear International.
    Over the decades, Lake Worth Beach has suffered its share of storm damage, but in recent years the problem had been neglect. But that’s all changed thanks to the city’s revitalization of the previously muddled conglomeration of shops and restaurants into the new casino.
    Celebratory action begins Feb. 16 with a “Dance Through the Decades” homecoming dance sponsored by the city’s Centennial Committee. Guests are asked to dress in prom attire from their favorite decade and dance to the Ted Knight Big Band. Tickets are $75 and proceeds will help pay for the new casino clock (578-9910).
    The new beach center will be officially launched with a grand opening weekend March 1 and 2. Festivities begin at 7 p.m. March 1 with a casino ribbon-cutting, followed by fireworks and a Roaring ’20s speakeasy party ($50 a ticket, for the clock fund) with live band, vintage autos and mock gambling.
    On March 2, the beach will be grandly opened with a 1920s theme, special entertainment, free admission to the pier and goodies such as popcorn and cotton candy for only a quarter.  
    The spirit still flickers at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Half a century ago, bad knees forced a promising football player to leave Florida State for what was then Palm Beach Junior College. He ran into a drama teacher named Watson B. Duncan Jr., who also had a hand in the playhouse. The player had one more flashy move — a radical leap of faith onto boards of the old playhouse stage.
    Surprisingly it worked out for Burt Reynolds, or Buddy, as he was known then. On Feb. 9, the playhouse will be transformed for one night only into a dinner theater as Burt returns for its diamond jubilee dinner-dance and silent auction. Tickets are $150 (586-6410).
After all this fuss about Parker, I hope it’s decent. But with Jason Statham and J Lo in the leads, Nick Nolte in support and Taylor Hackford directing, the credits are impressive.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a lot of the movie was shot in Palm Beach County, because Hackford wanted to be true to the book, Flashfire, which Donald E. Westlake wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark and based under the palms.
The Palm Beach Film Institute went all out with a red carpet preview on Jan. 18 with Hackford and Statham in attendance. They didn’t make another special screening a week later at Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton, but plenty of fuss was made by two other stars. You can’t get much more glamorous than One Thousand Ocean, LXR’s luxury oceanfront condo and the adjacent Boca Raton Resort & Club, both of which served as locations during the shoot.  

Metro Taxi of Palm Beach County has added a Toyota Prius to its fleet. The company plans to buy more hybrids. Photo provided

It’s not just police departments that have had to adjust to the demise of the Crown Victoria, Ford’s largest sedan, which went out of production in 2011. Taxicab companies, which have used the Crown Vics as a mainstay of their fleet for decades, are also scrambling to find suitable replacements — and in Palm Beach County, one cab company is exchanging the gas-guzzling Ford for a fuel- efficient hybrid.
Last month, Delray Beach-based Metro Taxi of Palm Beach County added a Toyota Prius to its fleet, a move that the owners say makes Metro the first cab company in the county to use a hybrid taxi. Soon Metro Taxi’s fleet of about 30 cabs could include more hybrids, says Arielle Richardson, whose father, Brock Rosayn, founded the company about 25 years ago.
“We’re already on the hunt for a second one,” she said.
 Across the country, a growing number of taxi companies are switching to hybrids as they replace the Crown Victoria. Richardson says that the fuel savings, along with the reduced environmental impact, help offset that initial higher cost.
    When the Super Bowl is over, I can’t help but wonder how one football player, known for his passion and intensity on the field and the sidelines, will adjust to retirement in Highland Beach.
    Yes, Highland Beach. For those who don’t know, Ray Lewis, the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens and former University of Miami All-America, owns an oceanfront house in the little beach town.
    He bought the 6,788-square-foot estate with six balconied bedrooms in 2004 for $5.2 million but got no takers when he put it up for sale in 2010 for just under $11 million. Lewis is retiring after 17 years in the NFL, all with Baltimore, because he wants to watch his son play football at UM.
    Ray Lewis III is a running back — weighs less than 190 pounds — but at Lake Mary Prep in Central Florida, he gained more than 9,000 yards and scored 89 touchdowns.
    Incidentally, other celebs who have lived in Highland Beach include Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey and race driver Jeff Gordon.
    No matter who lives there, Highland Beach will never be hot. But the celebrity temperature in Delray Beach and Boca Raton keeps rising. Holiday action offered a little bit for everyone — glamour, celebrity, comedy.
    Just after Christmas, Atlantic Avenue was abuzz because “that woman” was in town. That woman being TV bombshell Sofia Vergara of Modern Family, who was enjoying a break from the show with her main squeeze, Delray’s own Nick Loeb. Among other delights, they lunched at Burger Fi and stopped for dinner at Buddah Sky Bar.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer. Contact him at

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