*Hurricane Andrew: Ferocious, Ridiculous, Sublime*
On a hot evening in August, I was working in my office, preparing for a trial, when the telephone rang. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon and I’d been dealing with some nasty attorneys during the months prior to that evening, so it was with not just a little trepidation that I picked up the phone. But it wasn’t an attorney. It was my sister. And her news was so awful that the words were literally incomprehensible to me at first. I had to ask her to repeat them twice. But finally the words penetrated my foggy brain. My brother had been killed in a freak motorcycle accident.
I made arrangements to fly to Miami first thing the next morning. As I prepared for the journey, I began the mental fortification that a family visit always occasions. In this instance, however, I knew it would be far worse than ever before. But even I, with the amazing imagination, couldn’t anticipate what was to unfold over the next few days.
The family converged on my sister’s home in southwest Miami, near the Tamiami Airport. Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult for my family to sustain a graceful peace under one roof for more than an hour or so. But these were not normal circumstances. Not only had we lost a beloved family member; the occasion necessitated the close proximity of our mother and father whose mutual dislike generated enough BTUs to light Las Vegas in perpetuity. Expectations didn’t disappoint. The explosions were plentiful and exciting.
But even those began to pall as news of an intruder began to filter into our consciousness collective. A massive hurricane had apparently made a date with south Florida’s coast and was not going to be deterred from its self-appointed destiny. Did I mention it was August 1992? By Saturday, the National Weather Service’s (NWS) simulation models were putting the hurricane squarely over my sister’s house by Sunday night, late. Hurricane Andrew was making a bee-line for our house of familial horrors and, while enroute, was growing increasingly massive, stronger, and a heck of a lot scarier.
To say I watched the television coverage regarding the hurricane with more than a little trepidation would be an understatement. The steady drumbeat of gloom and doom became more strident with each hour as the NWS began preparing Floridians for the unpalatable fact that this storm would be the strongest to ever hit the United States. The storm was large and powerful, but thankfully fast-moving. NWS officials hoped that meant it wouldn’t linger long enough to dump massive quantities of water on us. But it was going to be a killer storm—far worse than the four other hurricanes I’d experienced as a youngster.
It had been awhile since south Florida had taken a direct hit, and we realized we were in for it and had only a day and a half to prepare for Andrew’s arrival. We organized ourselves into groups of tasks that needed to be performed. Inside tasks/outside tasks. Home tasks/tasks at my sister’s business/tasks involving going elsewhere like buying things at stores.
We inventoried our supplies and stocked them in a central location. Candles, flashlights, radios, TV, batteries, and other basic emergency supplies were stacked on the dining room table. I noticed that one candle was very soft. That little bit of information later turned out to be fortuitous. Meanwhile, outside, we were assessing what needed to be moved inside and how to allocate space.
We evaluated the tools and supplies we had for boarding things up and found ourselves woefully ill-supplied for this task. We were going to be riding out the hurricane with a lot of exposed glass, especially walls of sliding glass doors. Fortunately, the entire backyard and front windows were partially protected because a six- foot wall surrounded the house. This afforded significant protection during the storm.
We boarded up what we could with what we had. We didn’t have any pre-drilled plywood or other covers/awnings to put over the windows. So we used what we had, using a Remington firing nailer to secure them into the stucco wall. We concentrated on the most exposed windows. We even used a doubled over tarp to cover one window and nailed the corners into the wall. We trimmed the tree foliage back.
We pulled the boat over next to the basketball hoop. I emptied some of the air out of the tires of its trailer, then took tons of rope and straps and really lashed that boat to the trailer. Then I got the hose out and filled the boat about 1/3 full of water. I then tied that to the basketball vertical stand. I asked the neighbor if I could also tie the trailer to their tree and they said I could. Because the rope would cross their driveway, I decided to wait until the storm’s feeder bands actually started getting heavy to do that, just in case they needed to make a last-minute dash to the store for something.
We brought the car and truck into the backyard, inside the walled area, against the house, on the south side. The winds of the hurricane rotate counterclockwise so they are fiercest out of the north. The worst winds are on the eastern wall of the eye. From what we could tell from the track we were watching on TV, Andrew was heading straight for us. We were at ground zero--might as well have put a bull’s eye over my sister’s house.
We trimmed back many of the trees, ensured there were no coconuts remaining on palm trees where possible. All the outdoor furniture came inside, stacked closely together. The BBQ came in for protection as well—that would become our stove after the hurricane departed. Then we started bringing in the potted plants. My sister has this thing about potted plants. There were lots of them. Eventually, there was no room left and we still had several stuck outside. After assessing our options, I decided to place them against the north wall in the backyard. I figured that the wind, coming out of the north, would blow over the wall, right past them. (After the storm, they were all perfect so it was a good guess!)
We filled every container we could find with clean water, including the tub. We taped big lines of tape across the glass doors (this won’t prevent the doors from breaking but can help keep the tempered glass from shattering inward out of the frame if it is broken).
We made sure that things on the roof were tightly nailed down. We checked all the hurricane straps to ensure that they were all secure and intact.
We tied it up, nailed it down, brought it in, taped it up, or otherwise secured it. And then we went out to see if neighbors needed help. My brother went up on the roof across the street a couple of doors down to help the owners try to take their satellite dish off the roof—they were afraid it would fly off in the storm. It was one of those huge dishes. It was on so tightly they couldn’t even get it unbolted. But they got other things done. By evening, we sat down to dinner together, and then all took showers. And then we waited.
The first feeder bands started coming across the house at around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At about midnight, when the winds were whipping around pretty well and the rain had started lashing, I went out and tied down the boat. It was real work just to get back into the house. What a rush!
By about 1:00 in the morning the rain was very hard and lightning was hitting virtually constantly. By 2:00 in the morning, the wind gusts were hitting about every 1 ˝ seconds, and pounding the house so hard it shook with each gust. One corner of the tarp we had nailed over the window in front came loose and the grommet on the corner of the tarp was slapping the window with every gust. I was in that room and decided a graceful exit was in order.
I went out into the living room, and fell flat on my butt—hard-- on the slick tile--the floor was soaking wet. The power was out so I got up and went to the dining table. The area was illuminated almost like daylight with the constant lightning, but I lit a couple of the candles to see where the water was coming from. It didn’t take long to figure it out. Of course, the sound of my large carcass hitting the floor was enough to draw others from their respective corners of the house and soon we had all congregated in the living room/dining room area as we all watched the source of water in fascination.
With each pounding gust of wind, water was entering the house through the area surrounding the front door. It was spraying into the house all around the edges of the door, and was burbling up under the door as well. Immediately, my sister began throwing towels my way and we were trying to mop up gallons and gallons of water with a few armfuls of towels. I wryly remarked that what she needed was a wringer and she said, “I have one of those.” I just looked at her and she recognized it to mean “and you’re waiting to get is because why?” She went and got it and we mopped up the rest.
The water continued to come in under and around the door. I remarked that a little weather stripping might have been nice and she asked, “What’s that?” Oh boy. But suddenly I remembered the soft candle I’d encountered earlier during the preparations, and I grabbed it, broke the glass jar it was nested in, and began stretching that chunk of soft wax. I plugged all the way up one side of the door, across the top, and halfway down the other side with that little chunk of wax.
But the worst of it was still coming in below the door. My sister was mopping constantly, and I wondered if she was prepared to mop and wring all night. Again, being the wiseguy, I remarked, “you know, a couple of sandbags would really come in handy right now.” And wouldn’t you know it, my sister said, “I have sandbags.” And off she went again and came back with a couple of monster sandbags. We covered the bottom of the door and the little bit of spray that still came in on the remaining side of the door was negligible.
After that, we just watched the show. We were still able to see quite a bit of interesting activity above and beyond the wall as trees departed the earth for parts unknown until few remained. We also heard some very interesting noises. Booms. Crashes. Zipping sounds as shingles unzipped off the roof. And my favorite—the crashing sound of glass as, one by one, the glass light covers of the dropped ceiling in her back room got sucked out and fell to the floor. What a show!
By morning, it was over and we were all safe. We ventured out, video camera in hand. The first thing that was obvious was that few trees remained—they were either broken in half, uprooted entirely and gone, or uprooted and overturned. The tree trunk I had tied the boat to was snapped in half like a twig…and it was a foot thick. The tree was gone. The boat was still tied to the remaining two-foot high stump. The satellite dish across the street had come down. A piece of angle iron from its assembly had speared the neighbor’s house with either end embedded in two walls of the dining room, the piece of metal cutting across the inside of the room’s corner like a barrier stuck in place. Trees had crashed through roofs, groups of trees had crashed through roofs, cars were smashed. Debris was everywhere. Flooding was everywhere. Trees blocked the road everywhere. A massive walnut tree uprooted at the end of the street revealed a gaping 20’ x 15’ hole about 15’ deep.
My brother-in-law cranked up his chain saw and joined others on the block cutting up trees that were blocking roads and helping people begin the process of putting their lives back together. My brother, the body builder, was hauling the heavy chunks of wood away. I joined others helping move the smaller debris to the sides of the roads.
Once the immediate road was passable, my brother-in-law headed off to my sister’s place of business to retrieve the 30 gallons of water she had there. Some persuasion was required with those manning the roadblock north of our house, but the promise of water to these poor guys who otherwise were being rationed greased the way and mutual benefit prevailed.
My brother-in-law also miraculously managed to secure a generator because he knew someone who sold them. And he didn’t get price-gouged. It does pay to network. The generator really made a difference.
We had it relatively easy. We had a generator. We had drinking water. I was prepared, if necessary, to make solar stills to make more water, but we didn’t need them. We had the grill so we could cook. We had the pool so we had plenty of water for flushing the toilets. Overall, the worst part was that we couldn’t shower. And we even got power back Tuesday night around 9:00 p.m. It was an amazing feat, considering we were at ground zero.
With things going well, I got on the phone and learned that the airport would reopen the following morning. I was able to book a flight back to Washington for the next day, so I packed up and my mother took me to Miami International the next morning. We saw the Federal Express jet with the collapsed nosegear as we approached the terminal. I checked in and went to the gate to await my flight. I had allowed several hours because I didn’t know how much delay there would be with people having been stuck at the airport for over two days by then. There was no water to drink in our terminal. There was no food being served.
A gentleman approached us, his young son with him. Each had one piece of luggage and looked rather disheveled but their clothes were nice and they looked like they’d had to camp there awhile. The man looked embarrassed as he asked if we could spare a little money so his son could buy a prepackaged snack at the little shop there—it was the only food available. They’d been stuck there since Sunday whilst awaiting a flight back to Belgium, so they’d spent their remaining funds just surviving during the wait. In the time it took me to pull out a $20, I saw a half dozen bills materialize from people around us, ranging from $5 to $50. The man’s mouth dropped and so did mine.
While we awaited my flight, another gentleman I’d been chatting with decided to see if he could find water in the next terminal. Off he went. He returned about 45 minutes later, a tray in hand with a dozen or so cups of water. He offered me one and I gratefully accepted it. My mother accepted another. The other cups immediately were snapped up by others but many didn’t get any. A woman sitting across from me was watching me and as our eyes met, I held the cup out to her. To my amazement, she smiled, reached out, and accepted it. She took a drink and offered it back to me. I looked around and realized there were others watching, hoping to be included in the opportunity. I motioned toward them, and she passed the cup along. No fewer than five people—five strangers—drank from the same cup that day. No one worried about germs or race or religion or politics that day. We were all just people with common needs.
I learned many salutary lessons that week, far too numerous to discuss here. But here are several, all of which relate to how people respond to adversity.
First, it is extraordinary how quickly and efficiently the human mind can compartmentalize things. We went, in a seemingly seamless transition, from a group of emotionally raw, angry, individuals to a focused hard-working team intent on a common goal. We put our differences and mourning aside to deal with the exigencies at hand and achieved our goals. In difficult times, even under the worst circumstances, and perhaps because they ARE the worst of circumstances, people will pull together and get done what must get done.
Second, people react to collective adversity in ways they would never dream possible when they think of the possibilities during ordinary times. To see people helping the Belgian gentleman and his son as they did in the airport terminal was gratifying. But when I offered that woman my cup of water and she actually accepted it, I felt a level of amazement – perhaps wonder -- that I don’t believe I had felt prior and certainly haven’t felt since.
Third, just because opportunities appear to be foreclosed to you, don’t rule them out. That’s giving up and giving in. Think about the options you know you have. Then consider the options that may be possible. And then get creative and invent yet other possibilities you would like to have available to you but haven’t yet figured out how to go about achieving, and start thinking about how you might achieve those options. Networking helps--in our case, my brother-in-law’s networking got us a generator after the hurricane. He knew the right people. We understood what motivated people to want to help us when we needed to get through a roadblock. And we got through. We helped ourselves and we helped the young men who otherwise weren’t getting enough water while suffering in 95 degree heat. Mutual benefit worked.
Fourth, people seem to naturally join up into teams as the larger tasks loom before them. As long as you stay together and work as a team, you can accomplish almost anything.
And that, perhaps, is the best lesson to take away from this. If you already have a team, great. If not, consider putting a team together. You can accomplish many tasks as a team that you cannot handle alone. You can accomplish many more tasks as a team than you can complete alone. And when you’re dealing with adversity, being part of a team is a remarkably satisfying feeling.
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