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In Little Havana, awaiting Irma over cortaditos at Versailles

Coral Gables police officer Alfred Fernandez, center, chats with Rita Betancourt, right, while visiting the landmark family-owned Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana community of Miami on Friday as Hurricane Irma churned offshore. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Coral Gables police officer Alfred Fernandez, center, chats with Rita Betancourt, right, while visiting the landmark family-owned Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana community of Miami on Friday as Hurricane Irma churned offshore. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Sep. 8, 2017

MIAMI — The forecast looked bleak, but regulars leaned on the counter at the Versailles Restaurant anyway, waiting for coffee and pastries, trying to keep the beat of Little Havana steady.

"You got to be patient and stay calm and wait," said Carlos Badilla, 70, of Coral Gables.

Still, the storm was on everyone's mind.

Pablo Garcia puffed on a cigar and pulled up a picture on his phone, showing off the swirl of Irma next to Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 beast that devastated the area just south of Miami in 1992. Andrew was more compact, with a clear, scary eye, he said, but Irma is wider.

"Even if it just skirts us, there's going to be some heavy-duty winds," said Garcia, who has lived in Miami for 48 years.

He said the city is on alert, preparing for this storm more than he's ever seen before.

"Everybody knows that it's dangerous," Garcia said. "That it's a bad one."

The crowd inside the Versailles dining room, normally brimming, was slimmer Friday.

"I've never seen Miami this worried about a hurricane," said one of the owners, Nicole Valls.

The restaurant planned to close Friday night as soon as customers stopped coming for takeout cortaditos and wedges of key lime pie.

"Andrew kind of came and went," she said. "This is going to be pounding us for 24 hours, they're saying."

The Cuban exile community, in particular, could suffer if Irma makes a direct hit.

"They left everything behind and they're here and they made a home here," Valls said. "And to think they could lose all that again, their house and their family. It's scary."

The restaurant has generators to save its food if it loses power, Valls said. They have about 200 employees at the old building on Calle Ocho, and they normally serve thousands a day.

As soon as Irma is past the city, she said, they hope to reopen. "A lot of people left," she said. "But the majority are staying put. 305 till I die is what I keep hearing."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow ZackSampson.