These city workers usually push paper. They were told to pull branches instead

Carlos Markovich usually spends his work day behind a desk, reviewing proposals and municipal code amendments. But when the Miami Beach city planner returned to work after Hurricane Irma on Wednesday, his bosses had a different task in mind: Have some gloves. Get some tools. Start cleaning.

So around 10 a.m., Markovich found himself gathering up branches and leaves, dragging away tree branches that had snapped off their trunks and sweeping leaves off the sidewalk with a city rake.

“They told us that it would be a field day,” Markovich said, as he wiped sweat from his forehead over his sunglasses. “Thank God we didn’t get a direct hit.”

Markovich was among about 150 city employees who volunteered to help clean up the Beach’s public spaces after Irma flooded streets and knocked power lines from poles across the island. Though some grumbled about the manual labor, everyone who arrived Wednesday willingly grabbed tools or gloves or brought their own to clear the city’s grassy spaces.

Most of Miami Beach’s buildings escaped damage over the harrowing hurricane weekend, but the same couldn’t be said of the leafy glades and public spaces: In many of the city’s 37 parks, palm trees had been snapped at their bases and branches cracked from tree trunks.

So instead of putting municipal employees back in City Hall, which was still closed and had no air conditioning, the city put them to work on the streets clearing debris. Many of those sweating it out Wednesday morning were the Beach’s usually deskbound employees, more accustomed to pushing paper than piles of leaves across the city’s parks.

“When it’s an emergency, all departments have a role,” said Susy Torriente, assistant city manager.


Miami Beach City employees wait to board the bus to help to clear the streets and parks of debris and trees on Wednesday.

David Santiago

City Jimmy Morales sent a memo to city employees Tuesday night, telling all available employees — with the exception of more than 1,300 essential staffers like those at the emergency operations center — that they were wanted to help with the cleanup effort across the city .

“You should wear protective clothing and closed toe shoes,” he wrote. “I encourage employees to bring their own tools (like rakes and gloves) to speed up our efforts.”

None of the city employees was being handed a chainsaw or expected to drive a debris truck, Morales said Wednesday morning. The city just needed extra bodies to help tidy the debris into piles more manageable for specialized workers.

“Think of this as glorified yard work,” he said. “Presumably people here have done some yard work at home.”

Nestor Abarca and his friend Danny Flores, both in the Procurement Department, were prepared with Abarca’s rake and machete from his home near Sweetwater. Both rode out the storms with their families on the mainland and returned to Miami Beach “eager to help,” Flores said.

Yellow Parks and Rec buses sent department employees — from Capital Improvements to Parking to Finance — to several parks across the island: Normandy Isle, North Shore, Indian Beach. Before they went out, Sonia Bridges, director of risk management and benefits, went from group to group telling them which park they would be cleaning up that morning.

“I don’t want you doing any more than you can do,” she warned. “You know your limitations!”

“We don’t have any limitations!” Deputy Police Chief Rick Clements shouted back. About 15 police officers on the city force were redirected to help with the cleanup effort, he said.


Kristo Kotorri of Miami Beach Parks and Recreation removes debris at Allison Park.

David Santiago

The effort wasn’t without mishaps: An internal auditor sustained a minor injury at Normandy Isle Park around 11 a.m. and was taken to a hospital before being sent home, Melissa Berthier, the city’s public relations manager, said. A human resources employee also hurt an ankle while clearing Beachview Park and went home, she added.

At Allison Park on 65th Street and Collins Avenue, about a dozen Planning and Communications Department employees dragged large tree branches to the curbs and scooped smaller twigs into debris piles a few feet high.

The cleanup also yielded some unpleasant surprises. Under one snapped tree limb, Berthier found a dead green parrot, its feet twisted under its right wing, its beak hanging slightly open with a look of surprise.

The bird, like the rest of the debris, was tossed unceremoniously into the trash pile.

Julie Sacher, 21, an office assistant in Planning, said the joint cleanup was a way to help repair the city. “It’s kind of hurtful because so much has gone into making these parks,” she mused.


Alex Matos, an employee in Miami Beach’s marketing department, removes debris at Allison Park.

David Santiago

But not all employees were as enthusiastic about bending their backs to clear the parks of debris.

Nalla Tejera, an office assistant wearing jeans and her hair pulled back into a bun, joked that “if I had known, I would have called out sick.”

Clearing the park was a good reminder of what half of her municipal colleagues do daily, she said more seriously. “I don’t mind coming out here every once in a while,” she said. But after a while, “put me back in my office.”

Rogelio Madan, the city’s chief of community planning and sustainability, frowned as he gathered up branches and added them to the piles growing around the park. He couldn’t remember the last time he had to do this kind of landscape clearing, he said.

“It’s gotta get done. It’s not fun, but we gotta get the city back to work,” he said. “If there’s another storm, God forbid, this debris could be a hazard.”