Lane DeGregory podcast: Episode 92 - “He’s our Giuliani”

Randy Mink, then mayor of Bowling Green, reacts to the Army Corps of Engineers decision to remove the generator powering City Hall. Times (2004)
Randy Mink, then mayor of Bowling Green, reacts to the Army Corps of Engineers decision to remove the generator powering City Hall. Times (2004)
Published September 18

Today’s episode focuses on a story that ran after Hurricane Charley struck Florida in 2004.

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By Lane DeGregory / Times Staff Writer

The mayor needs a crane. And a shower. And a nap.

First things first: Got to find a crane so he can get those generators off the truck, get them down to power up the old train depot, where volunteers are handing out food.

And diesel. The mayor needs diesel. If the backup pumps at the septic plant run dry, he'll have raw sewage in the streets.

Ice. Something has to be done about all that ice. Hundreds of pounds of it, donated from as far away as Georgia, are melting in the back of six tractor-trailers.

"We're likely to be without water and power another week," the mayor tells the town manager. "We've got to find some way to turn Jimmy Parker's packing house into a freezer."

Red Cross trucks are streaming down the battered streets. National Guardsmen are patrolling outside the little Town Hall. At the donation center, toilet paper and diapers and canned tuna are piling up. It's Wednesday. Day 5.

"Remind me to call my wife," the mayor tells the town clerk. "After she saw me last night, she left and took the kids to her sister's." He slumps at the deputy clerk's desk and takes off his glasses. He rubs his hands through his stubbly red hair and closes his eyes.

He hasn't slept since Hurricane Charley trashed his tiny town.

His office is littered with bottles of antacid and Tylenol and used paper plates. Two emergency radios are crackling on the desk. All three phone lines are blinking.

The federal relief guys keep promising to make an appearance. A state emergency group keeps calling, demanding updates. Someone in Hardee County emergency management wants him to drive down to Wauchula to fill out forms and sit in on briefings and learn proper postdisaster protocol.

Randy Mink doesn't have time for protocol. He has a whole town to fix.

***

Bowling Green is a dot on the map between Fort Meade and Wauchula, a rural crossroads straddling U.S. 17. It was named for the hometown of the Kentucky farming families who settled here a century ago.

In the 1940s, during its heyday, Bowling Green billed itself as the strawberry capital of the world. Then a freak frost killed the crops, and the strawberry festival moved up the road to Plant City.

These days, folks around here mostly grow tomatoes and cucumbers. Or work in the phosphate mines. Like the mayor.

The town has one small market. A half-dozen churches. A girls prison, a thrift shop and a post office. No bars. No buses. Just 1 square mile of what are now splintered houses, roofless buildings and exploded mobile home parks.

"Every property in town is damaged," says Mink. "Lots of folks are bunking with relatives or staying under leaking roofs." Most folks didn't have insurance. Like the mayor. Most didn't have much to begin with.

About 3,000 people live in Bowling Green year-round, an equal mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics. A couple of months from now, if the snowbirds and the migrant workers come back, the population will double.

Where are those people going to stay? Mink keeps worrying. Where will they buy food or send their kids to school? What will the migrants pick?

Mink has been putting in 20-hour days, trying to work these things out. He found a tree cutter to get the oak out of Laura Coffee's living room. He got the garbage crew to help haul maggot-covered hamburger from Seller's Market. Every evening, he brings a hot meal to Mrs. Bailey, who is 81 and suffering in the heat. He already got her a generator. He plans to go home later and get his room air conditioner for her.

He hasn't had a minute to help his own family -- his elderly mom, his aunt. He hasn't been home long enough to pull the trees from his pool, patch the broken windows or take care of his wife and four youngest kids.

He keeps thinking: No wonder they left.

***

The mayor needs clean clothes. He ran out yesterday, and the nearest laundry with water is three towns away. His Wranglers are caked with dirt, his Florida State T-shirt is streaked with sweat. He has been shaving with a disposable razor, rinsing off in his leaf-filled pool.

"Tell those guys from Public Works if they want to come over and jump in, they can include that as overtime on their pay cards," the mayor tells the town clerk. "They've been sweating on city time. They should get paid to shower on city time."

He downs the rest of his cold coffee, answers a two-way radio. "I talked to Jimmy Parker," he says into the static. "He says if we can rig it, we can refrigerate his packing house. Hey, and get someone over to empty those Dumpsters at the park -- they're starting to become a health hazard."

Mink is 45, loves Andy Griffith and karate and gospel music. He's an environmental technician at IMC Phosphates. He ran for Town Commission only because his town was in trouble.

Five years ago, the governor's office was about to take over Bowling Green's finances. Mink, who has lived here since high school, wanted to help preserve his town's independence. So he ran for the five-member board.

After his first term, the other commissioners elected him mayor. Normally that means dropping into Town Hall a couple of times a week, signing checks and chatting with the clerks. Once a month, he'd lead the town meeting, which seldom lasted longer than a half-hour.

But "normal" is a foreign word now.

When his wife left, she was crying.

***

After finding a crane for the generators, checking the sewage plant and sending an electrician out to Parker’s packing house, Mink finally escapes Town Hall. He stops by his house to let his dog out. And pick up the air conditioner for Mrs. Bailey.

The mayor's house is a two-story farmhouse, 105 years old, with peeling paint and a rusty Coke machine propped on the wrap-around porch.

While the hurricane was tearing apart his town, Mink huddled in his living room with his wife and kids. They listened to power poles crashing, trees slamming through roofs, metal sheds pummeling walls. His little girl, Julia, kept sobbing.

About midnight, when the 120 mph winds had died down, Randy told his wife he was going to check on Town Hall. After all, he's the mayor. That's why they pay him $200 a month.

He threaded down Main Street, through sideways rain, gaping at his neighbors' crunched houses. The fire station was gone. The elementary school roof was shredded. Trees had crunched three of the six police cars.

At Main Street and U.S. 17, the town's only stoplight was dangling on a frayed wire. Mink stood in the back of his pickup, in the rain, and sawed it down with a chain saw.

For the next four days, he was being pulled in so many directions, he didn't have time to think or feel. Finally, late Tuesday night, he sat down on his bed, in the dark. He sat there, staring at the wall, his shoulders shaking. "You okay?" asked his wife, Stephanie. He didn't answer. She leaned forward, to see his face.

The mayor was choking back tears.

“He was trying to take care of so many people,” his wife said from her sister’s home in Ocala. “I figured if me and the kids left, he’d have one less thing to worry about.”

***

The mayor needs the town manager. And food. And a cigarette.

First things first: Got to find the town manager and calm him down.

"Those FEMA guys made him throw the phone across the room," a town worker tells the mayor when he gets back from hooking up his air conditioner for Mrs. Bailey. "They kept asking for task numbers and mission statements and all sorts of stuff we didn't know existed."

"If we waited on the government, we'd be five days behind where we are now," Mink says. "We got the generators unloaded. Diesel on the way. And Winn-Dixie is bringing a truckload of dry ice to keep the packing house cool."

He drives around town until he finds the town manager. "I'm not worried about FEMA," he says. "We've just got to do what we've got to do to get our town back."

At feeding time, 6 p.m., the mayor drives over to the train depot. Tami Atchley is serving hot gumbo from the back of her minivan. Her husband, Brad, has been home all day, tending the grill.

Ever since the storm, the Atchleys have been cooking meals and handing them out around town. Today, Brad made 75 plates of neck bone and rice and at least as many bowls of gumbo.

"Can I get one of those for Mrs. Bailey and her daughter?" the mayor asks. "And maybe one for my mom and my aunt?"

"Of course," says Tami Atchley, handing him five plastic spoons. "And take one for yourself. You look like you could use some supper."

The mayor doesn't remember whether he ate breakfast or lunch. "Thanks," he says, grabbing a gumbo. He sinks onto the curb by her van, pulls back the tinfoil and digs in.

While he's eating, the postmaster comes up to thank him. Thank you for getting us a generator. Thank you for getting us going again.

“New York had 9/11. We had Charley,” postmaster D. Williams-Tatis tells Atchley. She grabs a gumbo from the van and nods at the mayor. “He’s our Giuliani.”

***

Mrs. Bailey is lying on the couch, curled under an afghan, her eyes shut beneath her bifocals. Mink hands the two bowls of gumbo to her daughter. “It’s still warm,” he says.

"Since you got us that air conditioning, she finally got cooled off enough to get some sleep," Mrs. Bailey's daughter says. She sets the gumbo on the coffee table and hugs the mayor around his neck. "Without you, we wouldn't have her right now."

On his way back to Town Hall, he drops in on his mom to give her the gumbo.

He’s back at Town Hall at 8:30. The National Guard is still patrolling. “I just witnessed one of the beauties of small towns,” a police officer tells him. “I’ve been out there all day, watching folks clean up. Even the dirtbags are pitching in.”

For the first time in five days, the mayor laughs.

He empties his mailbox. Checks his phone messages. He still has to call his wife.

He's dialing her sister's house when the office door swings open. Brad Atchley walks in, flushed and tired. "Hey, thanks for the meals," Mink says, getting up to shake his hand. Atchley's charcoal grill has been the main source of hot food in Bowling Green.

“Just wondered how many lunches you think I ought to do tomorrow,” says Atchley. “Just don’t want anyone to go hungry.”

Mink cocks his head. "What are you, fixing to be the new mayor?"

"In due time," Atchley says.

The mayor folds into the clerk's chair and takes off his glasses. He rubs his hands through his stubbly red hair and closes his eyes. "Suits me," he says sleepily. "You can start tomorrow."

EPILOGUE

Last Friday, a week after the storm, Gov. Jeb Bush visited Bowling Green. The mayor shook his hand but didn't have time to listen to his speech.

On Saturday, hundreds of volunteers bombarded the town, contractors and church groups, plumbers and electricians. They sawed trees, patched roofs, hauled away what was left of people's homes. Mink's wife and kids came home. The town finally got power Saturday night. Mink took a hot shower for the first time in 10 days.

"We moved the donation center out of the depot, over to the Methodist Church. We've still got lots of food and water for folks," he said.

His hardest job was mediating a dispute between the National Guard and the county jail inmates who had been sent to Bowling Green to unload ice. The prisoners wanted to smoke during breaks.

"The National Guard didn't think they should be allowed to," the mayor said. "The Guard guys got kind of gung-ho."

Mink doesn't know when kids in Bowling Green will go back to school or when _ or if _ some of the town businesses will reopen.

He returned to his real job at the mines Monday, too. But on the way home, he had to be mayor again. Those Dumpsters down at the park were still overflowing. The town swimming pool was still full of trees. And someone had to make sure Mrs. Bailey had something for supper.


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