Thursday, October 14, 2010

Images (August, 1992 - Part IV)

I drifted in and out of sleep, hearing echoes of the previous day’s winds. It was the night after Hurricane Andrew made landfall, carving a path of destruction through South Florida.

I awoke to the sound of birds lightly chirping outside my window, something that had been missing the previous morning, when we were in the throes of the storm. I arose to a surprise: the two inches of water that had covered the entire floor of our home the day before were gone, having evaporated into the night.

Everything else was the same. Our home was a morass of broken glass, leaves and dirt. We had no power and no working phones. There were still no leaves on trees. Every house in our neighborhood was damaged. Neighbors continued to wander through the damage, taking in new evidence of the devastation with near masochistic fervor.

Later that day we turned on a small black and white battery-operated TV. A helicopter flew over US-1, just south of our home, broadcasting the scene. Nothing was recognizable. The damage intensified as the helicopter got further south.

We remained in the house for nearly a week, naively hoping that things would somehow improve. We then abandoned that hope and left, spending a couple of days with my friend Jim, whose home north of us had not been damaged, and later moving to a townhouse in a waterfront community in Aventura, near the Broward County line.

My memories of the days and weeks after the storm are hazy. I recall not events, but images, as if snapshots had been imbedded in my brain:

My wife Patricia walking hand-in-hand with our 20-month old twins through the destruction, my son pointing out all that was not normal, my daughter silently taking in the scene - It was during one of those walks on the days immediately following the storm that a pickup truck pulled up to them and asked if we needed water. Patricia said yes and directed the driver to our home. That is how we first met Bob, who had come down from Del Ray Beach, after seeing the impact of the storm in our area. Bob worked construction and carried a portable generator in the cab of his truck. He hooked it up to our home long enough to enable us to shower (back then, we had a well and an electric pump that brought water into the house). He boarded up some of our windows and returned the next day with chili that his wife had prepared for us. We would eventually hire Bob to help us repair the house, and to this day I remain grateful for his kindness and generosity.

Several neighbors using boards from what had been our wooden fence to patch their roofs – Wooden planks and blue tarps covered every roof. This limited the amount of water that seeped into our homes each time it rained. Roofers became a valuable commodity, which sometimes led to price gouging and outright fraud. Because of the scope of the destruction, local authorities had difficulty containing this widespread malaise.

Driving north on local roads and seeing less and less damage as we progressed - Our home had been in the northern eye wall of the storm. Those just north of us had been spared. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the destruction had Andrew come aground near the downtown area.

Cars lining up at a checkpoint set up by the Army at the northern end of our neighborhood – For weeks the area was under an early evening curfew and access was limited to local residents and those working on the battered homes. This helped contain the looting, although residents remained fearful. I recall a hand-painted sign on the boarded window of a home: “Looters will be shot.”

The electric buzzing of generators – Our area would remain without power for months, and nearly every house in our neighborhood added a generator. A few days after the storm hit, my brother-in-law Emmet drove down from New York with a generator and supplies. Emmet would remain with us for months, working with Bob and staying in our home to ensure its safety after we moved north.

My brother-in-law Liam, sitting atop our roof, watching military planes and choppers fly overhead - Liam had driven down with Emmet and enjoyed watching the activity in our skies from his elevated perch. For months our neighborhood would retain the feel of an occupied military zone, as the Army assumed control and brought elements of stability to the pervading chaos.

We were out of our home for six months, much longer than we had ever imagined. The Aventura townhouse into which we moved was owned by an Atlanta family who only used it on holiday. It was in a gated community of mostly retirees. While our temporary neighbors tried to be hospitable, we sensed that they viewed us as refugees from another land. They had suffered no damage and, despite the graphic images on TV, had no real concept of the scope of devastation just south of them.

Every evening after work I drove north from downtown Miami, away from the destruction. Patricia, who spent many of her days traveling with our twins back and forth from our home, would fill me in on the events of the day and the progress with repairs. On Friday nights we walked along the marina adjacent to our temporary home with the twins, who enjoyed seeing the docked boats and feeling the cool breeze blow in from the intracoastal waterway.

It is difficult for me to imagine what the experience must have been like for our kids. They were old enough to understand that something significant had occurred, but too young to fully grasp what they had lived through. When we temporarily abandoned our home and relocated north to Aventura, we left behind virtually all of their toys, fearful that glass from our broken windows would materialize and harm them. When the time came to return to our home in February of the following year, they were happily surprised that they would be able to take with them the new toys that we had purchased – they had assumed that those too would be left behind when we again relocated.

While our son, who was always talkative, would happily discuss his memories of Andrew, our daughter would consistently avoid the subject. It was not until a year later that she felt comfortable enough to discuss it. The person she chose for that discussion was my friend Joe, who had evacuated from Miami Beach and rode out the storm with us in our home, in the darkness of an interior closet.

Hurricane Andrew altered the landscape of South Florida. The sounds we heard from inside our closet, as the winds and heavy rains tore through our neighborhood, were the sounds of change. Unlike us, many of our neighbors chose not to return to their ravaged homes. They fled instead to other states and cities, hoping to avoid reminders that on that day, August 24, 1992, they survived one of the largest natural disasters of the twentieth century.

Eighteen years have elapsed, and our memories of Andrew become hazier with each passing day. Patricia and I no longer wake up in fear when we hear the sound of winds outside our window. It is almost as if the images that remain belong to someone else’s life in a distant world.

Yet even today, when walking through our lawn, we occasionally come across a shard of broken glass embedded in the dirt and are reminded of that harrowing day. Our memories of Andrew are not ghosts of a distant past, nor snapshots of another’s life. They are vivid reminders that we experienced an event that would forever shape and define our lives.


  1. Your post unleased a torrent of memories from my own childhood living in the hills beyond Burbank, evacuating annually during fire season, the fire department taking over our driveway and refilling the tankers from our swimming pool. All I ever heard from the family lore about the evacuations was how my parents packed the Great Dane, the silver, and my sister and me into the car as we headed off to some stranger’s house miles away. At the time, I couldn’t understand what the big fuss was over the silver, but now I realize it was probably the most valuable thing my parents owned at the time.

    I’m sure that no toys were brought along on those evacuations – but I’ll never forgot how the first evacuation marked the first time I went for 2 days without a change of clothing!

  2. Elio, I enjoyed reading this account. It was so vivid and moving. Much better than all the sports stuff!

  3. Another brilliant delivery of a telling description of such a horrid disaster.