Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Mighty Wind

“Hey, Kelley, did you hear about Category 4 hurricane that is supposed to hit us in a few days?  They’re calling it Andrew and I’m freaking out!”  said Eric, one of the actors that I worked with when I was doing the Pandemonium Midnight Upraising on Miami public radio.   “It’s probably nothing, they warn us all the time about storms and this is the first one of the season, so they’re being super careful.  Folks panic and clear the shelves at the supermarkets and buy all the wood at the hardware stores.  Then its rain and a little wind and not much else,” I assured with the certainty of a native Floridian who’d been through this drill countless times.    “But you might want to fill up your car now and get some money from the ATM because if it comes and we lose electricity, you won’t be able to get either.   Just buy some water, Gatorade and provisions for a few days if you need to – go for crackers and peanut butter if nothing else because milk and bread are the first things to go.”   I hung up the phone feeling like I had helped my fellow thespian, but his panic started to gnaw at me.   What if this time they were finally right?  It didn’t seem like we had as much time to prepare as the last few hurricanes that ended up being nothing.   I told Max, my groom of exactly four months, that I would be going out to get us cash and gas for our cars.   “Do you think it will be bad?   Brian Norcross does seem more adamant than in the past,” Max pointed out (before going to the National Weather Service, Brian Norcross was the Miami local weather guy).    “No, he’s probably sounding the warning bells again because he has stock in Home Depot and Publix and their sales go way up,” I joked but feeling more uneasy as the hours passed.    “Let’s get some food just in case we lose electricity and all the stuff on the fridge goes bad.  When the lights go out you can’t watch Northern Exposure or The Wonder Years for a few days – which sucks,” I said believing that I would only be unconvinced enough to miss a few of my favorite shows.   But that’s the sort of skin you develop when you live very close to the Atlantic during August and storms are a constant hazard – you figure your worse/best case scenario is missing a few days of work and going without TV. 

In South Florida, you don’t get much in the way of seasons.   The leaves don’t turn a golden orange, the air does not get crisper towards winter and it definitely doesn’t snow.   In fact, the temperatures go from warm, to humid to sultry and then back to hot – those are the four seasons in Miami.    Living up in Atlanta, I appreciate the changing of seasons and now with it being close to September, the trees are already starting to change color.   There is one season that you can count on – which is hurricane season and it’s not one you enjoy but one you have to pay close attention to.   In 1992, it was late August and we hadn’t had much in the way of tropical storms or hurricane warnings.   The story of Andrew had seemed unremarkable – at first it was a tropical depression, then a storm, then a Category 1 hurricane, then a category 4 and then finally on August 24, 1992, it became a category 5 hurricane which meant that it was packing winds of over 150 miles per hour.  It was on August 23rd that South Florida was finally taking it seriously after so many reports of its ultimate demise.   I managed to get gas and hit the ATM before the crowds descended but Max did not fare so well as the grocery store.   He managed to get coffee and peanut butter but the bread was gone and there was a near riot when more was brought out.  He wisely decided to grab some yeast, flour and some evaporated milk to make his own bread.  The night of August 23rd, we put masking tape on our car windows and on the sliding glass door of our third floor apartment.  We made sure our parents who lived in cinder block frame houses had what they needed.  Our parents again were veterans of Hurricanes Cleo, Donna, Betsy, David and a variety of other storms that were not worth remembering.  They knew the drill and both their homes had hurricane shutters.  I had survived Hurricane Kate in 1985 in Tallahassee which left many people without electricity for Thanksgiving that year.   But you could feel the anxiety over this one – it was a category 5 and it was going to be bad, really bad.   Brian Norcross had been up for 24 hours straight at that point and was urging everyone near water to evacuate.   They were comparing it to the hurricane of 1926 which even someone in their 30’s like me knew about because there were so few buildings in Miami that existed before then - they had simply been obliterated

Max was making bread that night and the smell in the apartment was incredible.   He also made a ton of Cuban coffee so that we could stay awake that night and probably for a week – we had a massive thermos full and it was that strong.   Our cat Gizmo was hiding under the bed because he could feel the falling of the barometer and it was hurting his ears.   We kept the TV on and tried to not worry too much but living in an apartment meant that you were at the mercy of the rental company and our prayers were that or apartment would hold fast.   As the winds started to pick up, we took our battery powered radio and moved to the hallway which was away from the sliding glass door and the thickest part of the building – so we felt as safe as we could be.   The night wore on but we had fresh baked bread and a ton of sugary espresso so we were well fed and wide awake.   You could heard the sounds of breaking glass as the coconuts from the nearby trees acted as torpedoes smashing things like sliding glass doors.  You could hear the wind which sounded like a freight train going by.   After a few hours, the electricity went out and there was no more Brian Norcross to let us know what was going on – only a radio that was played sporatically because we had to conserve our D batteries.  Eventually, it sounded like the storm was dying down outside and Max and I decided to finally close our eyes and sleep for a while as the last bit of cool air settled on the floor of our hallway.   When the morning came, we opened our eyes and looked outside.  

Our apartment overlooked the pool which was now completely trashed with branches and debris from the roof floating on the surface.    Overall, our complex didn’t seem to fare that badly from what we could see but there was no way of knowing how our parents or anyone else did – the phones were out and in 1992, few people had cell phones.  When your land line was out – it was out and you were at the mercy of the phone company to fix the lines.   I wondered how others had done and when we did put on the radio, we heard that Homestead and Cutler Ridge had gotten it pretty bad – which sucked because my brother and his family lived in Cutler Ridge.  It’s hard to imagine that you could feel that out of touch but without TV, no phone or internet (again, there was very little in the way of internet - first website was not launched until 1990) for all you knew no one knew about where you were and help might not be on the way.   I hated not knowing how our parents and my brother did – especially Max’s parents since his dad was bedridden from a stroke that had happened 13 years before.   We ventured out and saw the destruction around us.  We knew not to go towards electrical lines and to be very careful.   The apartment complex across the way had all their outside balconies blown away and the residents of those apartments needed ladders if they wanted out of their apartments.   Cars were crushed by trees, boats were thrown around like toys.   Dadeland Mall, which was the mall that we were just across the street from, looked like it was fully intact.  It took two frantic days to find out that our parents and my brother had come through the storm fine with minimal damage to their homes.   We didn’t have electricity for five days and that forced you to keep the windows open to experience the true nature of a Miami summer without AC.  Ice was selling at a premium and there were rumors of looting.  That was scary since we lived just across from Dadeland and what would keep the looters from coming across the bridge to the apartment buildings?

 Yet, in these high tension moments, we got to know our neighbors better because whether you were rich or poor, not having electricity or phones was the great equalizer.  Everyone wanted a hot shower, everyone wanted fresh water that you didn’t have to boil and everyone wanted to know what the outside world was doing to help.   More news came in that there were busses taking volunteers to Homestead to help with the clean-up.  Max and I decided to go partly out of the genuine need to help people who were way worse off than us and also just to get out of our own house.   The commercial bus pulled out of the Dadeland Metrorail parking lot and ventured up US 1 with a fresh bashion of unwashed masses willing to help (of course under these circumstances, everyone was unwashed), but at least it had AC.   The simple act of being on a bus and going somewhere – anywhere was enough to lift your spirits and people were chatty and smiling as we roared past  that stretch of highway.  But as we got past Cutler Ridge, you could see the devastation.  Homes badly damaged, intersections of businesses were ruined.   But as we made our way into Homestead, it got even worse.   It was like a war zone – piles of rubble where homes used to be.   Businesses that looked like they had been blown apart by bombs – street signs were gone so you had no idea where you were because the landmarks were blown away.   I was grateful that the bus driver knew his way because it was hard to tell where we were.  As we passed miles and miles of destroyed homes and lives, the mood on the bus got very somber.  Here we had been bitching about not having electricity or water, but as least we had a roof over our heads.   But the people who lived here had nothing left and it was heartbreaking.  The mighty wind took its terrible toll. Tall pine trees were bent in the direction of the wind that fateful night and would stay that way for years to come – a reminder of those 150 mile an hour winds.  We got out of the bus and were given work gloves and asked to help move debris.  It seemed like a Herculean task to clean things up - there was so much debris that our busload could hardly make a difference.   But we donned those gloves and cleared what we could for the next 8 hours still dazed at the magnitude of the destruction.  The bus was quiet again as we rode back – we were feeling lucky and guilty at the same time.   There were people in Homestead that would live in trailers for a year or more before their homes were rebuilt and it took months for them to get their utilities up and running.

After five days, we got our electricity and water back.   My parents stayed with us for a few days until their lights came on.  I started driving to work again and saw KC of KC and the Sunshine Band directing traffic which was surreal.   There was now a new normal of 10 to 15 feet of debris piled up along the sides of roads – a sight you would see for six months and it made you stir crazy.  The doors and windows closed as the ACs cranked up again. Your neighbors were now the people you waved to  - the paradigm shifted back to just seeing them in passing and saying “Hi” quickly rather than genuinely asking how they were and exchanging damage stories.  
I was walking around our complex looking at where trees used to stand and now were twisted stumps of their former selves a week after the disaster.   I started to cry for all those lost and all who had lost everything – decades of memories.  It was just so overwhelming.  Then I noticed something.   A small plant was starting to grow through a dead tree.  It was pushing through the frayed stump and was defying the odds.  It was the first sign of new growth that I had seen since Andrew had taught us how fragile we really were.   It was Mother Nature saying – “I have cleared away the old and now there must be new because life renews itself even in the most impossible circumstances.”     I walked back to the apartment and told Max what I saw.   I felt better because it meant that life would go on – South Florida would get through this.   So as the anniversaries of Andrew and Katrina are met by yet another storm named Isaac – my prayer for those that have experienced that level of loss is to know that it will get better eventually and that life goes on.  Even if the news media moves onto the next celebrity meltdown or financial crisis, there are people who will understand what it's like because they have been there themselves and want to help.   It takes more than a mighty wind to destroy hope because life has a funny way of making you see that the people in your life are more important then things that can be destroyed – and that is the greatest lesson of all.


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