Saturday, August 25, 2012

What I learned from Hurricane Andrew

Yesterday was the twenty year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew's landfall in South Florida. On August 24th, 1992 at around 5:00 am, Andrew came ashore centered on Homestead, a little north of Key Largo and a little south of Miami proper. The storm devastated the area, flattening house and buildings--including an entire shopping mall--uprooting trees, overturning cars, and knocking down power lines. The storm surge from Andrew was over ten feet in some coastal areas, like that of my mother-in-law whose house played host to a wall of mud and seawater that blew through every door and window, scattering everything in the house down the street in front of it.

Thousands and thousands of homes were destroyed, either by the storm surge or--in most case--Andrew's ferocious winds. Public buildings--especially in the Homestead, Florida City, and Cutler Ridge/Perrine areas--shared similar fates. Schools and hospitals were so severely damaged as to be rendered unusable, as were many private businesses. But it's not like anyone was going back to work or school the next day. Power was out all over South Florida. And it stayed that way--by and large--for quite some time; trees and debris impeded attempts by Florida Power and Light to fix things and a number of its stations were also unusable, along with a fair amount of its equipment.

To this day, Andrew ranks as the third costliest hurricane or tropical storm to make landfall on the U.S. mainland. And it's the only one in the top ten to have hit before 2001. If Andrew hit today, I'm quite certain the damage total in dollars would be much, much larger. Katrina, of course, was the costliest. But it was a much bigger storm and a very wet one. Andrew was unusual in a number of ways. It was compact, fast-moving, and relatively dry. And it was, in its own way, a thing of beauty:

Perfectly formed, the eyewall of Andrew hit square on Elliott Key. Andrew's top windspeed at landfall of 145 knots remains a record for all storms since 1983, when the speeds could be accurately recorded. Its central pressure of 922 mb at landfall was shockingly low, as well. But during its actual passage, there was little time to admire all of this.

During the Hurricane, my wife and I remained in our Coral Gables apartment, huddled in a hallway with naught but a radio and some flashlights. We listened to the wind whip around outside, with rain and debris pelting the walls and windows of our small, two story building. We were scared, no doubt. But as quickly as Andrew had come, he was gone. By midday, it was safe to venture outside to survey the damage. And that's what everyone did. Those with accessible and non-damaged cars--whose homes hadn't been severely damaged--took to the roads almost immediately to drive around and gawk and/or check on relatives and friends. Remember, this was 1992. Mobile phones were a luxury item few possessed. Power was out everywhere and so was phone service.

That's the gist of the situation, of Andrew's destruction and the circumstances in South Florida after it had passed. And certainly, people have seen more deadly storms, have suffered greater losses of both life and property. I don't mean to carve out a special niche for South Florida in this regard or any other. Really, it's the aftermath of the Hurricane that I wish to talk about.

The weeks--really, the months--after Andrew hit are a blur in my memory, having run together with few discernible breaks. At the time, I was an assistant manager at a local chain grocery store. And as things turned out, my store was the southernmost functioning one in the area. The store manager had lost his entire home in the storm and left it to me and another assistant manager to run the store. Thus, I went back to work the day after Andrew. And there I basically stayed, trying to keep the store going with a skeletal staff and the limits of an area-wide dusk til dawn curfew (my wife spent the days helping her mother and sister recover what they could from their largely-destroyed home).

Dress codes were ignored, as were many other protocols. Most of the people who showed up for work were either high school students or younger employees without families. And it was a glorious time, hazy though it was. People came to work and actually worked. No slackers at all, at least for the first several weeks. I was so proud of these people, especially the high-schoolers, who came to work in awful conditions and sweated out the days doing things many had never done before.

Because of our location, we became the primary source of supplies for FP&L, the National Guard, and other groups involved in the clean-up. We moved record amounts of product out of the store, with almost no help from our main offices who--it turned out--were largely unaware that we were open. Every vendor that showed up at our back door was bought out in full because I knew we'd sell it all. The Deer Park Water truck driver--for instance--was supposed to ration his deliveries to all of the stores on his route. But he didn't; he left it all with me because he knew that from my store, the goods were going where they were truly needed.

Near the end of each day, the other manager and I took turns loading up our trucks with ice and supplies, then driving into ravaged areas and giving it all away. That's right, even as we were making record profits, we were also helping those most desperately in need of help. To this day, I do not believe the company knows we did this. No one--aside from a a handful of people in the store--knows. But then, that wasn't the point at all.

And we were not alone. This attitude permeated South Florida. People--by and large--did what they had to do for themselves and their families, then turned around and did the same for perfect strangers. And yes, the National Guard showed up to help. So did FEMA. But neither was doing anywhere close to the lion's share of the work. Everyday, average citizens were. The police were severely undermanned, yet crime didn't explode throughout the area. There was looting, sure, but local citizens in the devastated areas took it upon themselves to initiate "shotgun duty." I'm sure the name is self-explanatory and looting ended as quickly as it began.

The lesson? People can do the right thing. And they are often willing to do the right thing. But it only happens when they get to arrive at the decision on their own, when no one is telling them what they must do or promising them what others will do.

As terrible as the destruction of Andrew was, as difficult as the clean-up and recovery was, it was a special kind of life-lesson. And I worry that--twenty years later--it's a lesson many would be unwilling to accept. The current climate of entitlement in our nation is deeply at odds with the aftermath of Andrew, with the bonds of community that drove the people in South Florida to new heights, that were actually strengthened by the experience.

Almost a decade later, New York experienced 9-11 and the same sort of rise in communal spirit. But it seems to me that bigger and bigger tragedies are needed to produce the same sorts of feelings, the same sorts of selfless action. And we can hardly hope for that. Where does that leave us?

Cheers, all.

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