Thursday, September 30, 2010

Daylight (August, 1992 - Part III)

Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida as a Category 5 storm during the early hours of Monday, August 24, 1992. Wind speeds exceeded 160 miles per hour.

I sat in two inches of water, in the darkness of our home closet, my back against the door, waiting for the winds to subside. To my left, my friend Joe, who had evacuated from Miami Beach, held my sleeping 20-month old son. His twin sister remained awake, to my right, resting her head on my wife’s shoulder.

The voice of the announcer on our battery-operated radio provided updates. The storm, which had been expected to make landfall around the Dade-Broward line, veered south at the last minute. The announcer stated that it had come ashore around South Miami, just north of us. This placed us smack in the eye of the storm.

The deafening noise of wind, rain and destruction continued through the night. Fear and tension kept us awake, hearing glass break and wood splinter, the sound of our car alarms barely discernable outside.

At around 7:00 A.M. the noise appeared to diminish slightly. For the first time in several hours, it was no longer overpowering. The winds seemed to be dying down.

I slowly opened the closet door and ventured into the hall. Like the closet, it was covered by two inches of water. When my daughter saw me step outside, she began crying and struggling to free herself from my wife’s grasp. Patricia held her tighter and whispered in her ear, trying to calm her down.

I could still hear the sound of the wind outside, but it was clearly not as strong. I waded through the water that blanketed my entire house toward the family room overlooking the pool. When I got there I saw that our two sliding glass doors had been smashed in. The masking tape that I had used to try to keep the glass from splintering had posed no obstacle to the wind. There was glass everywhere. Water dripped down the walls. I noticed leaves, apparently blown in from outside, on our walls, even on our ceilings.

I looked through the broken glass of our doors, and saw that the aluminum screen structure that normally covered our pool area was gone. Some of it lay inside the pool. The wooden fence around our lot’s perimeter was also gone. I could not tell where that went. The only thing that stood in our patio area was the pool fence pole that I had been unable to dislodge from the ground the previous night. Somehow, it had survived unscathed, while everything around it was blown to pieces.

The palm trees in our yard had been toppled over. Some of our neighbor’s trees still stood, but they seemed on the verge of snapping in half, pushed nearly horizontally by what were still strong, if weakening, winds.

At one point, the winds suddenly appeared to increase in intensity, and I hurried back to the closet. I told Patricia: “It’s bad.” I closed the closet door and returned to the darkness, which seemed less intense now that there was light outside.

The radio announcer warned that the lag we were experiencing was simply the eye of the storm. He told everyone to remain indoors. Our respite from the wind was only temporary, he said. The tail end of the eye, the “dirty” side of the storm, was still to come. Conditions would worsen any minute.

We sat in the closet for the next two hours, waiting for winds to again intensify. By 9:00 A.M., however, it was evident that the radio announcer was wrong. The worst was over. Later, we would learn that the National Hurricane Center, which was then situated in Coral Gables, had been hit by the storm. After it went down, it was impossible to track Andrew’s path with any degree of certainty. The storm had actually come ashore further south than had been indicated, around Homestead. This meant that our home was not in the middle of the eye, but rather on the north side of the eye wall. There would be no “dirty” side.

We emerged from the closet cautiously, ready to return at the first sound of heavy winds. We walked carefully through the house, assessing the damage. Every window on the front (east) and north side of the house was broken. The air turbines on our roof had been blown off – that was how the wind and rain had first entered our home. The shingles on our roof had also been blown away, many of them visible throughout our yard. Several of the wood boards that made up our roof had been dislodged, exposing our home to direct daylight. Our family and wedding pictures, which we had placed on the floor the night before to protect them from the wind, sat in the two inches of water that covered the floor of our entire house. Many of the pictures would not be salvaged.

I walked towards the front of the house. The previous night, I had wedged a heavy bookcase between the front doors and the foyer wall directly behind it, believing that this would help keep the doors shut. The front doors stood completely open, the heavy bookcase lay on our front lawn. The windows on both of our cars, which sat in the driveway, were nearly all smashed. That was the reason why we heard the car alarms throughout the night. As each new window broke, the alarms cried out, as if the cars themselves were screaming in terror.

I wandered outside, where I saw several of my neighbors walking as if in a dream. We asked each other if everyone was okay, but that was all we said. We simply walked mechanically, taking in the damage. Most of the trees in the area were down, and those that stood had been stripped entirely of leaves, appearing naked in the desolation. I looked across the street and noticed that the second floor roof of one of my neighbor’s homes, a roof he had built a few short months before, had completely caved in, succumbing to the heavy wind and rain. I was told that my neighbor and his family had not been hurt. All street signs, all fences, most of what would make our neighborhood recognizable, were gone. We appeared to be in a war zone.

We had no power and our phones were down. Later that morning, I walked a half-mile to US-1, trying to locate a working phone to call our families and let them know we were well. I found that every inch of our neighborhood was as bad or worse than our home. I found no working phones.

I returned home and spent most of the day trying to sweep water from our house. I was in a state of shock, working sluggishly and seeming not to make a dent in the damage. Joe worked alongside me. It gave us something to do and kept our minds somewhat clear of what we had experienced.

Later that day, my friend Jim, who lived north of us, in an area that had not been affected by the storm, drove down to see how we were doing. Jim indicated that many roads in our area were blocked by fallen trees and debris, and he had to drive around to find a clear path. Although he had been to our home many times, he struggled to find it, since all street signs were gone and intersections had been altered beyond recognition by the winds.

Jim helped organize our cleanup efforts, something that, in our zombie-like state, none of us could to do. He led an expedition to our backyard and directed the cleanup of debris, principally the shingles that had been blown from our roof. He would return the next day to complete the process, an experience that led Joe to comment: “I don’t ever want to see another shingle again.” Later, Jim went home, armed with our families’ telephone numbers. He promised to call them and let them know we were okay.

That evening, we ate pasta salad that Patricia had prepared the day before, but none of us was very hungry. Although we had no power, the weather proved surprisingly mild, and we did not suffer from the lack of air conditioning.

When the sun went down, so did we, finally succumbing to the exhaustion caused by the previous sleepless night and the stress brought on by fear. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, I tried not think about the past twenty-four hours, and wondered what the next daylight would bring.

1 comment:

  1. "[A]s if the cars themselves were screaming in terror."

    Brilliant imagery.