8/25/2007

Hurricane Andrew changed my life


Fifteen years ago this weekend, my life changed.

My wife and I were living in South Florida. On Saturday, August 22, 1992, we were having lunch with a friend at a small cafĂ© in Stuart. Someone mentioned that the first tropical storm of the summer had formed and was somewhere around the Bahamas. Since it was the first storm of the 1992 hurricane season, it was given the “A” name – Andrew.

I didn’t think much about it. I made a wisecrack of some sort. We moved on to another topic of conversation.

But out in the Atlantic, Andrew was undergoing dramatic and profound changes. We didn’t know it at the time, but Andrew had already strengthened from a tropical storm to a minimal hurricane.

Hurricanes draw their strength from warm ocean water, and Andrew had found a banquet. And as it sucked up the energy from the warm water, there were no upper level winds to impede its development.

So Andrew underwent what meteorologists call rapid intensification, more colorfully known as “bombing out.” In only about 30 hours, Andrew mushroomed from a minimal hurricane with winds of 75 miles an hour to a city-leveling monster with winds of 165 miles an hour.

By Sunday afternoon – 24 hours after our leisurely, untroubled little lunch in Stuart – I was as close to panic as I ever remember being. We were totally unprepared for anything like this, and as Miami TV anchors continued their sonorous predictions of inevitable doom, we were trying to figure out what the hell to do.


At some point on that bizarre Sunday afternoon, I made a run to the ATM machine to get cash and then to a gas station to fill the tank of my car. All around me were thousands of other people also trying to make hasty preparations for probable catastrophe. I paid the clerk for my gas. As he handed me my receipt, he said, “Have a nice weekend.” I just stared at him open-mouthed and speechless for a moment. In the background, the TV was blaring about the coming doomsday, and this guy was wishing me a pleasant weekend. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say, and left, shaking my head.

We spent the night with a friend whose house was equipped with hurricane shutters. About 120 miles south of us, Andrew made landfall in southern Dade County.

Andrew has been described as more of a large tornado than a hurricane. Very intense hurricanes have very small eyes, and as Andrew roared ashore early on Monday, August 24, its eye was only about 12 miles wide.

Up the coast in St. Lucie County, however, we were in Andrew’s fringes. We received some intense rainfall and wind gusts that took down a few tree limbs, and that was pretty much it.

But about a week later, I was in southern Dade where Andrew had come ashore. At one point from Florida’s Turnpike, all I could see from horizon to horizon was total destruction. Nothing was standing. Everything was a jumble of debris, shards of lumber, broken trees.


At Florida City, where the turnpike ended, it looked like the town had been used for artillery practice. People with dazed expressions on their faces were driving around in cars with smashed-in roofs and broken windows. A blue haze of smoke from burning debris hung in the air. Military helicopters buzzed about overhead. Crowds of people were gathered around large, military tents to receive food and first aid.

I could have been in a Third World nation instead of the U.S.

I’m still sorting through the effect that that experience had on me. It may be the closest thing to a religious experience that I’ll ever have, because for the first time in my life, I fully realized that there are forces in this world whose power I cannot begin to comprehend and against which I am powerless.

For a couple of years, I became obsessed with powerful hurricanes. I decided that if I was going to live in a part of the world where these things might visit, I had to learn everything I could about them. So I read everything I could find about hurricanes.

At some point, I read about the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. I was astonished to learn that this storm had been even more powerful than Hurricane Andrew. In fact, the Labor Day hurricane is still the most powerful storm to make landfall in the U.S.

I dug up more information about this hurricane, and became fascinated with the story of hundreds of World War I veterans being left in harm’s way when this storm came ashore in the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935. It was a complex story with many layers. And it became Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, which was published by National Geographic in August 2002 – ten years after I’d witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Andrew.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Willie,

I would like to introduce myself. I am Kathy Britt, Literacy Specialist at Creswell High School and long-time English/Language Arts/French teacher in Washington County. First, I am delighted to read about you in the Roanoke Beacon. Congratulations on your recent award! We (avid readers and struggling writers in the local area) are thrilled to have you and your wife join our Plymouth/Roper/Creswell community. Now, straight to the point: would you two please consider visiting Creswell to speak to our students and faculty about your amazing work? ...just a relaxed, small group interaction about writing (the importance of it, how you became a writer, some of your interesting stories, etc.) It would be such a memorable occasion for all of us, and we would treat you to breakfast or lunch and pay for your skip down to Creswell and back. Please consider this request. Opportunities like this don't come along often for us, truly.

Kathy Britt
kbritt@washingtonco.k12.nc.us