The air was dead still. We were outside throwing a football around and there was no breeze, no rustling of leaves, for that matter no sound at all, except the boys out front throwing a football around. Even in cemented South Florida there were always the noise of birds chirping or even cars driving. But not this evening. There was no noise. I remember the air being heavy but not as humid as August near Miami can be. After all, we were outside throwing a football around.
It was early evening, about the time the sun would start to fade, but at least in my memory it was a little hazy out and darker then usual. We knew it was going to be a long night but had no idea. Hurricane Andrew, the first hurricane of the 1992 season, was about to hit land.
The last major hurricane to hit South Florida was in the 1960s. Very few people living there in the 90s would have remembered it as most people in South Florida are transplants from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland and Chicago. I remember people taking it seriously but no where near as serious as Katrina almost two decades later. My dad, living near Cleveland, Ohio, didn’t even know about the storm until I called him the day of to tell him it was coming.
The guys on the radio were already going. Meteorologist Brian Norcross was the go-to guy, saying he’d be on air as long as he could be. I can’t imagine the dedication to his job required when his family was home living through this. But if it wasn’t for Mr. Norcross, all of Ft Lauderdale and Miami would have gone insane sometime around 3am.
Most were predicting that Andrew would hit right on the Broward-Dade County line, which was about 2 miles south of my house. But hurricanes are fickle and where it appears to be going is not always the case. At the last minute it veered south, striking south of Miami in some of the poorest areas around, ripping apart the Miami zoo and running headlong through the Everglades.
I don’t remember any of my neighbors making a big deal out of it. We certainly didn’t. No one bought plywood or stocked up on supplies. None of the windows in the neighborhood were boarded up. A big storm is coming. Okay. We’ve seen nasty weather before.
I remember the winds starting and falling asleep to Mr. Norcross on the radio. Around 2 in the morning I awoke to a freight train running outside my window. That was the last I slept that night. Andrew’s winds were around 115 mph with gusts up to 165. At one point, even though we were warned against it, I looked out my window. The rain was lashing and any trees I could see were bent sideways. That’s when it dawned on me that I could see quite clearly. It wasn’t dark, actually. It was like twilight outside. I could also see the neighbors’ houses. The tree in our front yard was gone.
Somehow, from his offices in downtown Miami, Brian Norcross stayed on the air. He had at least 10 million listeners that night, listening in on reports from the frontlines, listening to the latest on wind gusts and direction, being reminded not to go outside when the eye passed over. All night we listened to people calling in. Most memorable was the family of five huddled in a bathroom as their roof was being pulled off their house, hearing the noise of Andrew ripping and tearing that helpless house to bits.
Sometime in the morning the winds died down, the freight train stopped running. Hurricane Andrew, by veering south, left us without a tree and a mailbox but everything else was fine. Our neighbors all had more damage then us but not much by South Florida standards, as we came to learn. Their taller houses shielded us. We were very lucky.
I can’t say the same for our neighbors to the south. I was friends with a police officer who, on his off-time, went to South Miami to help out. The entire area was flattened. People were propping up walls to their houses and writing street addresses on them just so anyone could find their way around. There were pictures of yachts in people’s swimming pools, picked up and carried miles inland. The devastation was total, like someone took a massive steamroller and rolled it over everything. The humanitarian effort was enormous. People came from all over the country to help out, bringing food and water by the truckload.
Obviously, South Florida recovered. It took years and billions of dollars. The innocence would not, though. The wave of devastating hurricanes, starting with Hugo and Gilbert just a few years before, is amazing given the lack of those in the decades preceding.
I live far from South Florida now, almost as far as one could live and still be in the continental United States. It doesn’t matter, though. Here in the Northwest we still have our disasters. Mountains exploding, ground shaking, and potential tsunamis that could carry away the entire coast. Andrew, though, carried away my innocence. I’ll never be so lackadaisical about weather again.