Live on local television stations, an anxious-faced Florida governor Jeb Bush, son of the former president and brother of the Republican presidential candidate, set the fearful tone as Hurricane Floyd bore down yesterday.
Floyd, we were told, was "enormously dangerous, three times as powerful as Andrew," the devastating hurricane that flattened areas of South Florida in 1992, killing 26 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
"It's all bullshit. I've lived here all my life," was the response from Danny Vaisman, a 48-year-old insurance broker from low-lying Palm Island next to Miami's cruise port. "If TV didn't hype it, we all wouldn't have to go crazy."
Mr Vaisman wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan "We be jammin' The Bahamas" he'd bought on an earlier holiday to the islands. At that moment, the Bahamas were taking the first hits from Floyd.
Bahamas residents called Miami television stations saying they were sheltering in buildings such as banks. One family was rescued from a boat they were trying to secure when it was battered against a harbour wall and broke up.
As a broker who deals with storm damage, Mr Vaisman stands to make a lot of money from Floyd. "If he hits here, I'm gonna get rich as hell. No, I'm only kidding. Nobody wants that to happen. We all want it to miss us," he said.
As Floyd's outer storm bands began to touch the coast, Florida was split as always between the frightened - including foreign tourists - and those who have seen hurricanes come and go. As Governor Bush pointed out with neat political correctness, Florida is "blessed with a large elderly population", most of whom were bused to inland shelters.
Many complained they were not allowed to take their pets to the shelters. They were advised to separate cats and dogs, make sure they were tagged, leave food and water in apartments and keep them locked in windowless rooms.
Tourists in such resorts as Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale queued for coaches to take them to shelters in inland schools and other public buildings. Others walked to the beach to watch jet-skiers defy the police to take advantage of surging waves.
Mr Vaisman was taking a "power walk" through Palm Island, listening to a local radio station on a headset, even as the first storm winds littered the streets with broken-off palm fronds. Like the rest of the Florida coast, including all of Miami Beach, Palm Island was in the "mandatory evacuation zone" declared by local authorities on Monday night.
But others also ignored it: on nearby Hibiscus Island, 14-year-old Matt Sinnreich was playing tennis with a friend, using the wind to give extra pace to his topspin lob. His father Mark, a heart surgeon,was jogging near by. "If this thing hits us here direct, this whole island will be under water," he said of the upmarket area of luxury villas. "I'm ready to run if necessary but I'm staying here because I've got patients living around here. This stress doesn't do much for the heart."
His hospital, the Miami Heart Institute at Miami Beach, evacuated its patients the evening before. Hotels did the same but many foreign tourists complained of a lack of help. "We don't speak English, our hotel just gave us a pamphlet in English and told us to go and see the police," Luigi Giacomo, from Turin, told me in Italian. "Where are the police? Where should we go?"
Miami Beach's popular Ocean Drive art deco district was boarded up and closed down. Even the renowned 24-hour News Cafe, which always stayed open during some of the worst storms, put corrugated iron over its windows and shut down. Catering to Cuban-Americans who need their strong coffee fix, the Puerto Sagua cafe stayed open and was a rare hub of activity.
Hundreds of people flocked to the beach by car or on foot, walking their dogs, even romping in the rising surf, defying police who urged them through loudhailers to cross the causeways to inland shelters. A few even donned rollerblades and enjoyed the unusually quiet pavements of Ocean Drive.
"Man, we don't get no surf like this no other time," said Sergio Torres, a 21-year-old stuffing his surfboard into a pickup truck after a morning session.
"We're just gonna grab a coffee then get back in there," he said. Where were they going to get coffee? "Dunkin' Donuts. The cops have got to eat, man," said Sergio, who had tracked down the only place open on Miami Beach for the only people meant to be in the zone.
Sergio had been dodging the police all morning after they started issuing 50-dollar penalty tickets to surfers. "These kids are crazy. And they're distracting the emergency services," a police officer told me. "But we've warned them. They're on their own. If this thing hits, they ain't gonna find us pulling them out."
While the macho surfers and the curious stayed on, tens of thousands packed into shelters on the inland side of the causeways leading to the coast. "Frankly, I'm scared," said Nadia Lopez, a 38-year-old mother of two lying on the floor of the assembly hall of a primary school.
"We all remember Andrew. We were in Homestead then and lost our roof. You never get over something like that.
"The moment you see those palm trees dancing, then bending over double, it's spooky. You realise you are powerless. It's as though a monster is coming at you and blowing you away as if you're a paper cut-out," said Ms Lopez.Reuse content