Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hurricane Andrew: The Big One

By Edith McClintock
NOAA / Satellite and Information Service

Growing up in Miami in the ’80s, hurricanes were like the boy who cried wolf—forever threatening, but never delivering. I associated them strictly with a day off from school. An afternoon tropical storm often seemed more threatening than a hurricane.

On August 22, 1992, I had just turned 20. I spent the entire day at a Lollapalooza concert—oblivious. I fell asleep that night knowing vaguely that a hurricane was on the way, that the Florida Keys were being evacuated. But as that happened frequently, it wasn’t important enough for me to worry about.

I woke to a world in panic. Cars lined up for miles, waiting for gas. Grocery shelves emptied. Those who could leave clogged the northbound turnpike in search of shelter in Orlando and Kissimmee’s hotel alley. Luckily, my mom was a little more prepared than I was—she’d made arrangements for our family to stay at her friend’s house in Perrine, which was on higher ground and had old-fashioned hurricane shutters. But we had to leave our family cat behind.

Three families gathered in that small house the night of August 23rd. I was excited—strange lights flashed across the sky, wind gusts tossed around palms and rattled windows, the air buzzed. But halfway through the night, we couldn’t pry open the door to look outside anymore (for which my poor mother was no doubt thankful). The house began to breathe, literally heaving in and out. The roof creaked and lifted, like it might fly away. The carport ripped off—or so we assumed. It was hard to sort out the cacophony of banging and crunching beating the house.

But it wasn’t until a glass mirror exploded above my head, and I looked up to a brown pole protruding from the wall that my excitement gave way to fear. We ran into the next room to find my brother staring in shock at the street pole suspended above the bed where he’d been sleeping.

Bob Epstein, FEMA News Photo
At that point, all 10 of us moved into an interior hallway. We considered putting a mattress over our heads like meteorologist, Bryan Norcross, was recommending; he stayed with us via radio through that long night, always calming, always explaining.

The lights went out. Chunks of roof fell to the floor. Rain trickled down the walls and dripped from the roof. There were periods of quiet between the shrieking bands of wind, time to reflect and worry. Were we on the south or east side of the storm now? Or were we only in the deceitful calm of the eye? We didn’t know, but we didn’t think the house would survive much more. Eventually the lulls grew longer. I curled up on the wet couch and fell into a half-sleep.

I woke, soggy and tired, still in my clothes from the night before. Outside, the world as I knew it had been bombed. There were no standing trees. No light polls. No power lines. No street signs. No traffic lights. We gazed in awe at the U-haul truck flipped upside down on top of the two-story building down the street.

Miraculously, our car had only a few scratches. We drove home, southward to Cutler Ridge, navigating around the piles of debris—palm trees, boats, cars, couches, all those downed poles—by driving through shopping centers, across people’s yards, over logs.

The damage grew worse. Houses—poof—vanished. Roof beams opened to the sky. Apartment buildings lay sliced open like mini-doll houses with rooms on display.

We pulled into our driveway, surprised and thankful because our house seemed nearly intact. Then we opened the front door to burning blue sky. The back of the house, formerly a Florida room with jalousie windows on three sides, no longer existed. Our cat, we found in the top of a closet, a little traumatized but thankfully not hurt. Phones and electricity were out for months. Water was gone for many. Pictures and valuables lost. The August heat unbearable.

I remember listening to the radio that first morning, to people calling in from northern areas of the county—Coconut Grove or Miami Beach—talking about what seemed to me minor damage, their lost electricity, a downed tree; to people speculating that we’d missed the big one after all. I wanted to scream at the radio, maybe I even did: You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t have any idea what’s happened down here! You have a phone line!
National Hurricane Center

Feeling abandoned, people spray-painted their roofs with messages to the media, government, and insurance companies. We became a tourist attraction—Europeans drove by in open-topped buses, filming us chopping downed trees. The military arrived and set up tents with water and food (if you can classify MREs as food) and much-coveted ice. Neighbors met each other for the first time. We shared chainsaws. We bought generators from price gougers. Friends, family and strangers came down to help us rebuild.

The return to semi-normalcy took months. The curfew remained until November. But a full recovery never did happen—at least in the sense that Hurricane Andrew changed that area permanently. But still, I’m glad I was there to see a Big One, a Category 5, the strongest to hit the United States in recorded history.

I don’t have any photos of my own, but I don’t need any. It was unforgettable.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. I have some great photos of homestead if you would like more reminders...

    1. I have the Miami Herald photo book, for whenever I'm feeling nostalgic, which so far has been never. ;-)

  2. Oh Edith. I wish I knew you back then. Im so glad you family made it through and Im so glad your cat survived. Great, gripping story! I can read hurricane stories over and over but when its from someone you know, it takes on a whole new meaning. I wonder how it influenced the way you are today? (for better or worse?) Do you ever analyze that? Im sure it was a life altering experience.

    1. Thanks, Dana. I did learn a lot about how the best of government intentions can go very wrong for the people living under them.

  3. Great post, Edith. What a terrifying ordeal for you (and the cat!) I have never been in a hurricane, but I remember the aftermath of Hugo in Puerto Rico in 1989. There was salvage and repair being done for months (years?) afterwards. We often forget the power the Earth holds to tear down the little things we take for granted as being solid--like the power pole in the bedroom.

    1. Thanks, Beth. The positive of a hurricane is that at least you have a lot of warning these days. I hope you don't have to experience any natural disasters in the Philippines.

  4. A really great post, Edith. And timely.

  5. Edith, I'm so glad you shared this. As a native Californian I'm in awe at your description. Hurricanes and tornadoes have always scared the absolute heck out of me in concept. So incredibly glad you and your family were alright through it all.

  6. Hey Edith! I can't believe it's 20 years since. For a Russian guy that barely new what a hurricane was from the school books and Soviet TV Andrew was quite an experience. FIU campus looked pretty bad but it was nothing compared to the South Miami. Thanks for the post, it brought memories.


  7. I know, I know on the 20 years. The upside, I guess, is we all got an extra month off school before starting at FIU.