To this day, I can't talk about Hurricane Andrew without tearing up. Watching any nature show on TV that features footage of Andrew brings me to tears.
August 24th, 1992. Although I’d grown up in Miami, Florida, I had never experienced anything that would prepare me for that summer. Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida with what I can only describe as a fury. I recall finding out on a Sunday morning that we were getting a hurricane. You may be thinking to yourselves, how did you only find out the day it hit? Well, as Hurricane Andrew blew across the Atlantic, the experts predicted that as it hit the Gulf Stream, it would turn right. It didn't. So within 12 hours, we were expecting a Category 4 Hurricane to hit right smack dab in the middle on Miami.
I was 14 at the time and had never experienced a Hurricane up until that point. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had no reference point. My dad had to run into work to be with the hospital staff, as he was essential personnel. He showed me how to tighten the bolts on the storm shutters and explained that it was just like any bad storm but it would be much more intense. My mom scrambled around the house picking up all of the loose items in the yard and bringing her potted plants inside. She made trips to the grocery in order to stock up on food, drinks, candles, flashlights, batteries and card games to keep us entertained. My grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousin came over and we all bunkered down for the night.
Sometime during the early morning, I woke up from a sound sleep and heard a high-pitched whining noise. Getting up from the couch, I had a very uneasy feeling and went to the bedrooms to begin waking up family members. I don't know if it was intuition or just outright fear, but I wanted everyone together. After looking out the front bay window, I saw that the storm shutter was gone. The noise I heard was that of metal being torn…the force of the wind pulled the shutter out of the wall outside. Later we would look at where they were bolted in and see the threads stripped where the bolts had been. The wind literally ripped the shutters off the walls. One by one, we gathered in the living room and began talking about what was going on. We could hear the wind whipping around the house and the pine tree swaying in the front yard. It was pitch black and we had flashlights on, talking to each other. The power had gone out while we were sleeping, so we had no way to watch the news or find out what was happening with the storm. (This is a lesson I learned and carried with me throughout many future hurricanes – always have a battery powered radio during hurricane season.) We sat in anxious silence waiting for something to happen. Of course, we didn’t have to wait long.
As we heard the pine tree snapping in front of our porch, my family ran into my parent’s master bedroom, which was the only room that seemed safe. There was a half bath in my parent’s master bedroom, and there was a large tree that stood against the bathroom and bedroom windows on that side of the house. Within minutes of us all getting into the bedroom, we began to hear the windows in the house shatter. It was an intense few minutes…within seconds of hearing the front bay window shatter, we heard the shutter being torn from the master bedroom windows. We ran into the half bath and my uncle pulled the mattress off the bed behind us and tried to lean it against the outside of the bathroom door as we all huddle inside. We put a bean bag against the bathroom window and my grandmother and uncle, who weighed more, leaned against the bathroom door to keep it closed.
It was terrifying. We were 9 people, two of which were babies, crammed into a five foot by five foot bathroom, in the pitch black, with the wind howling around us. There seemed to be a pressure in the house, the air was heavy, thick, almost suffocating. We could hear our windows shattering throughout the house, hear things slamming into the walls, hear our furniture being thrown around…the most terrifying thing was hearing the low, creaking noise coming from the ceiling. We were sure it was the roof being torn off and waited in terrified anticipation for it to lift off. Thankfully, that never happened. There were stress cracks all over the house after the storm subsided, though.
One by one, the adrenaline of rushing into the bathroom began to wear off. My family began having panic attacks. We began to smell a strange smell, thinking it was gasses coming through the sewer system (as we were sitting next to the toilet and sink, my mother could only assume that is where it was coming from). We began scrambling to put our shirts over our mouths, in order to avoid breathing in the toxic fumes. We began having upset stomachs from the stress, which resulted in explosive diarrhea – while we all sat in the dark, not able to escape while each other relieved themselves in the toilet. To be honest, I was in such a state of shock and terror that I don’t really remember thinking it was embarrassing or disgusting that they had to use the bathroom with us there. It was pitch black and we saw nothing – we had ran into the bathroom so quickly that we had left the flashlights scattered throughout the living room and master bedroom.
We remained in that bathroom for hours, listening, waiting, crying, praying for our lives. Just as we heard the wind stop, the light began streaming through the bathroom window. We assumed we were in the eye of the hurricane and ran from the bathroom into the master bedroom, and stood in awe of what we found.
My parent's bedroom room had been ripped apart. The windows were blown out along the front wall of the house, and all of the pictures and framed art had been ripped off the walls and shredded. The bed was thrown against the wall, the dressers were tumbled over and in different parts of the room. We later decided a small cyclone of wind must have developed in that room. As we entered the main part of the house, the living room, we saw that a tree from our neighbor’s house had come through our bay windows and slammed against the sliding glass doors in the back of the dining room. Everything was demolished. Furniture, artwork, photo albums, toys, everything was in ruin. There were clumps of dirt, leaves and other various debris scattered among our belongings that the wind had brought in through our windows.
Going outside to see the damage to the rest of the house was equally devastating. Even now, 18 years later, I can’t compare anything to walking outside the morning after Hurricane Andrew. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. If I close my eyes, I can see it as though it happened this morning.
The sun was shining through the clouds. People began coming out of their homes, looking through the piles of random debris on the street. Trees that used to line our block were snapped in half, ripped out completely, or split down the middle. Telephone poles tilted to the side. Powerlines and telephone lines hung dangerously low. There were shingles EVERYWHERE. It was dead quiet.
Something happens to a person after they live through a catastrophic event. Compared to Hurricane Katrina some 15 years later, or the Tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004, Hurricane Andrew may seem trivial. But it was the single worst thing that has ever happened to me. It changed my life forever.
Years of family photos - GONE. All of the artwork I had done in Middle School - DESTROYED. My clothes? My toys? My furniture? My notes from friends throughout school? GONE. Every material piece of my life was gone.
What came after was almost as traumatizing. We had no electricity for weeks. No hot water. Which meant no air conditioning, no lights, no tv, no anything. We drove to Kendall to shower at a friend's house. While my mother had bought groceries before the storm hit in case stores were closed, the winds and rain tore everything out of the cabinets. The food in the fridge went bad quickly in the sweltering August heat. There wasn't an open grocery store for miles and miles. We went to get hot meals and basic supplies at the Salvation Army. There were "tent cities" everywhere - FEMA and the Salvation Army brought in hundreds of tents, providing shelter for those whose homes had been completely destroyed.
Within a few weeks, some stores had reopened. School was about to start. All of our back to school supplies, clothing, etc was ruined. The Salvation Army provided relief checks for families and we were able to buy a few items for back to school...
No windows on the house meant that while enduring the summer heat, we also slept with mosquitoes, cockroaches and a wide array of other disgusting bugs in the house, crawling on us while we slept, trying to get into the food we had stored.
When school started back, it was a relief. The school had sustained minor damage. It had been used as a hurricane shelter for the storm. We were able to shower in the gym showers. There was free breakfast and lunch - hot food - and best of all, air conditioning.
When the National Guard showed up, we all felt a little better. They handed out water in our neighborhoods. They patrolled andhelped us feel safer. People had been sitting on their roofs at night, guns in hand, protecting their homes and families against looters and criminals. I will never forget what its like to look out the front door and see a military caravan driving down your street.
For years, my entire family went into panic mode each time a tropical storm was announced. During heavy rainstorms, my younger sisters were hysterical. We lived in a trailer in the backyard for over a year while the house was being repaired. Six people crammed into a two bedroom single-wide trailer, with my grandmother who lived across the street usually sleeping on the couch when she didn't stay with her son. I felt like a sardine. I shared a bedroom with my three sisters. I was 14, just beginning my teen years and I had no privacy. If I were peeing in the bathroom, the entire house could hear it. When my parents argued in their bedroom on the other side of the house about the repairs taking too long, or what light fixture they wanted for the kitchen, we all heard it. Sometimes at night I would open the bedroom window and take the screen out, crawling out to sit on the lawn just to feel like I was able to breathe.
People who live through events like Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Fires...they suffer not only during the event, but for years after. It took a long time before we were able to recover from what happened to us, to replace the things that were lost, to rebuild our home, our lives...
Each year as Hurricane season approaches, I think about Hurricane Andrew. Each time a tropical storm is named out in the Atlantic, each time I see that colorful spiral on the radar, I take a deep breath.