published: Friday, August 24, 2012
Remembering Andrew, 20 years later
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- As Central Florida warily watches Tropical Storm Isaac, many people are remembering another storm and the utter devastation it left behind.
Twenty years ago today, Hurricane Andrew came ashore in South Florida. It was the third category five storm to be recorded hitting the continental United States.
The small and fast-moving storm made landfall early in the morning of Aug. 24, 1992. It devastated the Homestead region of Dade County and parts of South Miami.
Andrew destroyed 80 percent of the Homestead and Florida City area. More than 82,000 businesses were destroyed, and 250,000 people were left homeless.
The environment was hit hard too -- 33 percent of the reefs in Biscayne National Park were damaged or destroyed, as were 90 percent of the Dade native pinelands.
Damages came to approximately $30 billion (equivalent to $40 billion in 2012). Thirty years of debris was created in less than a day.
Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Andrew was the most expensive hurricane disaster in the country. Photos taken of the damage were overwhelming - scenes of entire neighborhoods splintered beyond recognition; all road signs and traffic lights swept away by the wind.
<b>'It headed right at us'</b>
Mychelle Tomek was 14 at the time. She was staying with family in Highlands County, as she did every summer.
Tomek said her story is ironic. "At first it looked like the storm was headed right for Central Florida, so my parents came to take me out of its path to the safety of South Florida and home," she said.
"Then the storm changed direction. It headed right at us. We took off the bedroom doors, boarded the windows and gathered together."
A two-story house behind them was blown apart by the wind. Major debris from the demolished house took out half of Mychelle's home, leaving the family was exposed to the driving rain and wind. Creating a tent out of mattresses, the family huddled in the foyer.
Afterwards, the streets were so blocked by fallen trees, house parts and other debris that the family was trapped for three weeks.
Tomek returned to Sebring for the six months it took to rebuild her family's home.
In 1997, tired of trying to get back to normal, the family relocated to Sebring permanently.
<b>'I've found your roof'</b>
Shane Morris lived in the Kendall and Homestead area at the time. He, his wife and six-month-old son joined extended family, including two more young children, to ride out the storm.
He was the only one with hurricane experience. In advance he filled his car's gas tank, made sure its battery was charged and bought provisions.
At first everyone sat around watching T.V., but the weather around them wasn't bad, Morris said, so the wives and the children went to bed.
The back of the house faced east with a wall of sliding glass doors.
Morris said he fell asleep on the couch in front of the windows, watching hurricane coverage.
"I'll never forget it," Morris said. "It was 2:54 a.m. when I woke up and smelled salt in the air."
That's when he noticed the glass doors were bowed inward and ocean salt was blowing in. Thankfully, he added, the windows never gave in.
"Bryan Norcross (a local weather man) was on T.V. holding a flashlight in his hand," Morris said. "'It's coming,' Norcross was saying, 'it's already on shore. If you have things that aren't tied down ...' and the television shut down in mid-sentence.
"The house was creaking and stuff was hitting the outside. Then the wind really started blowing, howling in the roof attic."
Looking up, Morris could see the popcorn ceiling moving up and down.
By now everybody was awake, the three children tucked into the bathtub.
Morris and his brother-in-law ran to the attic door, trying to open it with no success because the pressure was so great. Then suddenly, Morris said, "The door was gone, it flew right by me and I was standing with two or three inches of insulation round my feet."
Removing the door helped ease the pressure on the roof. The house settled down. "After that everything was all right," Morris said.
Afterwards, all he could see were piles of roof barrel tiles everywhere, downed trees, cars smashed and housing debris. Ocean salt had been blown so hard it coated the house with white crystals.
"It was quite a clean-up," Morris said. "We were without electricity for three months and a month and a half without water." At one point he was driving to West Palm Beach to get ice. He added that the mosquitoes were awful.
The family developed a regular routine, cooking meals on the grill. To have light at night Morris ran 30 feet of wire from his car battery to a drop-light he hung in the back porch. Periodically he started the engine and re-charged the battery.
It didn't take long, Morris said, for his next door neighbor to come running over, livid with rage, "How do you have electricity?" the man yelled. When Morris showed him what he had done, he apologized and began hanging out with the family.
Several other things stand out in Morris' memory -- a complete freighter high and dry in the middle of U.S. 1 and a B-17 missing from Tamiami Airport. The crew looking for the plane followed skid marks and tire tracks to find it, only the last few yards there were no signs on the ground -- it actually took to the air before landing in muck.
Morris' brother-in-law had lost his roof in the storm. Everything he owned was sucked out and gone. Then his brother-in-law got a call from a friend. "I've found your roof," the friend said. It was two miles away, in one complete piece, including shingles. Some clothes and his stereo were with it.
While Morris relocated to Highlands County in 1997, he said it had nothing to do with the storm.
Gus Garcia, a lieutenant with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, was an officer with the North Miami Police Department at the time.
He was sent to Homestead immediately after the storm to help. What he remembers most is the devastation when he arrived. Even the Homestead Police Department needed help to get up and running.
Roofs and parts of houses lay everywhere. So were the nails that had held all those roofs and parts together. Roads were covered with them. The police department quickly ran out of tires. One of the first things Homestead sent for was replacements.
Garcia accompanied convoys bringing food and supplies down from Miami.
He also worked in Country Walk, one of the worst hit developments where poorly constructed houses blew apart.
"It was really, really depressing," Garcia said. "Everything was just gone. All that was left was a big pile of debris.
"Many people lived outside. It was too hot to sleep indoors." Garcia said. "It was back to primitive living."
He added that his experience taught him it is important to prepare emotionally before a hurricane hits -- not so much for the force of the storm, but for life afterwards. It is possible to go weeks, even months, without power or water, Garcia said. .
"You need to be mentally ready," he said.
Small Banner Ads