Monay Ambrister at Top Value Supermarket
Monay Ambrister at Top Value Supermarket
Photo by Isabella Gomes

Overtown Residents Say Miami's Historic African-American Neighborhood Ready for Irma

Behind the counter at Jackson Soul Food, Lataurus Ingraham scoffs at the question. "Irma? That name doesn't even sound good," he says. "I tell you what, on Friday, we're gonna go find Irma and we'll tie all of 'em down — all those hurricanes."

Unfazed by an impending 185-mph hurricane that looks to have South Florida in its sights, the cheeky, bearded 33-year-old restaurant manager from Miramar flits across the room and attends to the tables of his thirteen hungry customers. As he checks in on his their fried yellowtail fishes, collard greens and scrambled eggs, they nod in agreement.

"You'll be safe here," he says.

For 27 years, Jackson's doors have been open, dutifully serving Overtown locals and out-of-state visitors, even during the catastrophic hurricanes Andrew and Wilma. Now, with Irma roaring toward South Florida, the city rushes to prepare for blackouts, flooding and potential evacuations. Within hours, many local grocery and convenience stores were already out of water, canned goods and toiletries.

But in Overtown, Miami's historically black neighborhood just northwest of downtown, the neighborhood's residents and businesses say they're ready to ride out the monster cane if necessary.

According to Ingraham, before noon Monday, Jackson Soul Food had set up their back-up generator and packed water bottles. Should American Red Cross pass through the neighborhood, the restaurant plans to provide meals to the volunteers.

"We're ready for it," he says: "Now we're trying block that hurricane back to where she came from."

Dee Whigham outside of Overtown laundromat
Dee Whigham outside of Overtown laundromat
Photo by Isabella Gomes

Two blocks north, seaport officer Dee Whigham drags a utility cart with two blue laundry bags to her pickup truck. As an "essential employee," Whigham will be manning the Port of Miami for the duration of the storm, which is why she has been washing her uniforms. Though she won't be at home, she says her house on 10th Street is already ready for the storm.

"I bought batteries, ice coolers and pet supplies for my dog," she says. Her preparedness is out of necessity, she says, as the county hasn't reached out to any tenants on her block. Many of her neighbors have similarly stocked up on supplies themselves.

Down the street, Barbara Neal, an administrator at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, sits on a park bench, nibbling on a chicken drumstick. As a resident of Miami Gardens, Neal has already endured the wrath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"Because of the wind, an avocado tree caught on fire and hit my house's generator, causing it to explode. All I saw were blue and green sparks," she says, "I had no lights for a month."

But Neal says she isn't worried about her neighborhood. "Everyone's at Top Value [Supermarket] buying supplies. They all know what's coming," she says.

Barbara Neal at Gibson Park outside of Frederick Douglass Elementary School
Barbara Neal at Gibson Park outside of Frederick Douglass Elementary School
Photo by Isabella Gomes

Deborah Roberts, a 56-year-old social worker, agrees. Having lived on 17th Street her entire life, the pixie-haired grandmother says her community deal with Andrew and Wilma. "We had community agencies bussing the elderly to get food," she says. "People got together with chainsaws to cut dead tree limbs. My brothers and I even got these plywood boards to cover people's windows like criss-cross, since some people had no money to buy them. We had some major unity."

Even Overtown's homeless population has been successfully relocated during past storms, she says. Allegedly, many were shuttled to nearby shelters at the Culmer Center, Dunbar Elementary School and Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School.

As for her own preparation, Roberts says she's already picked up medication, withdrawn money and bought coal, canned meat, and sandwich spread for her family. She even has a hurricane survival kit that her late husband prepared. "He's still looking up for me when he's gone," she says.

With a kind smile, she adds, "We're doing OK — everyone is helping everybody."

Deborah Roberts at Overtown Youth CenterEXPAND
Deborah Roberts at Overtown Youth Center
Photo by Isabella Gomes

Still, like the rest of Dade County the neighborhood has already been dealing with dwindling supplies as residents hustle to get ready for Irma. Top Value, the neighborhood's biggest market, has nearly run out of basic necessities by 2 p.m. on Tuesday. Water bottles are completely out, and only sparkling water and soda remain.

"People have been buying everything," says 18-year-old cashier Monay Ambrister: "Water, tuna, Vienna sausage, and chicken noodle soup—just this morning, every single [checkout] line was packed."

Back at Jackson, Ingraham says Overtown's long history gives residents confidence — unlike downtown's gleaming new skyscrapers, which are untested by any major storm, many of Overtown's buildings date back decades. Ingraham pulls his blue snapback cap forward and pats the walls. "See these?" he asks, "They're historic — concrete, built by hand ... Even our windows, they're bulletproof and hurricane-proof."

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