“Hurricane Andrew ripped through Dade County in August, 1992. Winds reaching up to 175 mph left a path of destruction. Andrew forced 50,000 residents from their homes and caused $25 Billion in damages”
Places I lived in South Florida over 25 years
I grew up in South Florida, moving to Plantation from Trenton, NJ when I was 4 years old. I lived in the South Florida area for 25 years before I experienced my first hurricane, Andrew, in the early morning hours of August 24, 1992. My parents and their siblings were born and raised in South Florida, and their parents continued to live in the area along with most of my aunts and uncles and cousins for many years after I arrived. I was raised on family stories of terrible storms and imagining what would necessitate the massive iron and steel hurricane shutters that had not bee used since before my Florida residence began. Over such a long period of time, quite naturally there were a number of near misses; it happened just enough for hurricanes to feel like a myth…something to ignore.
Coconut Grove home
In the Summer of 1991, I purchased a home in Coconut Grove that had been built in the 1920′s. The fact that the home had withstood multiple hurricanes over the years meant very little to me. Also irrelevant, except for the savings on flood insurance, was the fact that the home was built on the highest natural elevation point for the entire southern Florida geography (16 feet above sea level) despite being only 1 block west of Biscayne Bay. On the other hand, it had no storm shutters, which was of no concern to me at all.
I loved that house, with the palm trees and wooded patches throughout the yard; it was a perfect shelter from my stressful professional life.
Dangerously Isolated (T-minus 36 hours)
It was August 22, 1992, and I was attending a pre-season football game of the Miami Dolphins in Joe Robbie stadium when I was asked what I planned to do about ‘the hurricane’. My response was, “what?” I had heard nothing about it at all. It may seem hard to believe, but there was no internet news, and since I didn’t watch much TV or read the local newspaper, it was possible for me to be isolated. Still, it made sense that something had kept the crowd lower than usual for a preseason game (42k vs. 60k); I just didn’t know.
Map of Hurricane Andrew location by date in August of 1992
Yet, when I checked the news later that day, I found that there was no hurricane. Andrew was just a tropical storm that seemed to have recently shifted toward South Florida. It wasn’t until 5:45 p.m. that evening (just 27 hours before the storm arrived and 36 hours prior to the eventual landfall) that a hurricane ‘watch’ went out (I made sure to watch TV news that night).
The Public was told that the storm, which was likely to become a hurricane, would most likely come ashore along the Dade and Broward county line, which would miss me by 20 miles to the north. And I had to believe that the storm could also change course again and miss the state entirely. I was relieved and satisfied that events would progress as they had many times before…once more, the storm warning would amount to nothing serious.
At this point, I was cautious but unmotivated to even begin to think about the ‘what-if’s’.
Contributing to my overly slow reaction were four historical facts:
- No hurricanes hit south Florida since 1965 (28 years) and no serious threats since 1979 (14 years)
- Andrew was the first tropical storm of 1992
- Andrew had not threatened Florida at all until the evening on the 22nd (22 hours before the storm began)
- Andrew was a fast hurricane, moving 17-18 miles per once it turned toward Florida; it came on very quickly
Looking Serious (T-minus 24 hours)
Once I awoke on the morning of August 23rd and found that the storm had intensified (officially a hurricane with a hurricane ‘warning’ issued) and was still heading toward the Dade/Broward border, I decided that it did seem likely that the storm would hit something. But I’d seen that before. I was willing to take some precautions, but I wasn’t going to do something stupidly unnecessary, like evacuating. My thinking, which I still think is valid, was ‘where would I go to dodge the storm?’ I could only head north, and who was to say the storm wouldn’t push even farther north. And besides, the southern end of the storm (where I was) is the least likely to cause serious damage. No. I decided I would stay with my house. And I would protect my property in whatever way I could at the last moment.
The Right Side of the Storm
As a general rule of thumb, the hurricane’s right side (relative to the direction it is travelling) is the most dangerous part of the storm because of the additive effect of the hurricane wind speed and speed of the larger atmospheric flow (the steering winds). The increased winds on the right side increase the storm surge. Tornadoes are also more common here.
~NOAA, Hurricane Basics
At this point, my emotions ran mostly toward irritation. I was worried enough to apply myself to the situation, but I didn’t really expect anything serious to happen.
I drove to nearby stores and quickly found out that I was too late; all the wood for securing windows and the non-perishable food and bottled water had been bought out, everywhere. I bought a trash can for water and tape for windows and returned home to do what I could. I filled the trash can with water and left it in the central bathroom to protect it from more exposed areas of the house. I then taped up all the windows and used whatever trash wood I had lying around to board up the biggest window I had….a big bay window overlooking my front lawn. I took down my awnings and brought inside all patio furniture, and then there was nothing to do.
To make use of the time, I decided to get in my bike training ride. I decided I would ride over to Key Biscayne to see how people were preparing on the island. But once again, the preparation had already happened. The roads were empty as I had Rickenbacker Causeway all to myself for the first and only time. The only vehicle I saw was a van filming a video from an open back, which had so little to see it decided to say with me to film my entire ride up and over the high point of the bridge. I only rode for a couple hours; I might have been stupid, but I wasn’t crazy.
Once I got home, I didn’t have long to wait, so I watched TV, which was now broadcasting hurricane news full time.
Then It Got Dark (T-minus 9 hours)
The daylight was drawing to an end around 8pm when the winds started to pick up. The radio said the edge of the storm had arrived, but to me it just looked a bit windy outside. I was relieved that it wouldn’t be a big deal after all.
And then a massive tree across the street exploded as it twisted off its truck and fell to the ground onto the street in front of my house. And then, in short order, everyone of my palm trees in the front yard just simply fell over. Thump, thump, thump.
The winds were only 40-50 mph, about to go to over 100 mph. And then it got dark.
At this point, my emotions began to shift from being annoyed about the mess the storm would make to being worried about the level of damage that might occur. It seemed likely that I was going to lose some stuff.
The TV was on until about midnight when the power went out (it wouldn’t come back on for over a week). From then on, I listened to the newscasts on my portable radio that never left my pocket for 30 hours (I used a single earpiece ‘headphone’, if you can believe such a thing ever existed). My Motorola MicroTAC cell phone didn’t have internet access yet (nor an ability to place phone calls for quite a while). The talk on the radio was all about where would the eye wall make landfall. Would it come straight west or would it veer off a bit north or south….or even straight north with the Gulf Stream, and miss us all together. In the meantime, all I could do was walk from window to window to see whatever horrific damage I could see happening to my property.
The power of Hurricane Andrew winds
The Wind was Unreal (Zero hour)
I could no longer see anything outside, except for my biggest palm tree on the north side of the house which had leaned over until it was leaning up against and banging the roof over the master bedroom. It worried me enough that I felt I should go outside to see if the bedroom was dangerous.
I knew it was stupid to go outside, but I just had to know. I just had to see what a hurricane was like.
I put on my bicycle helmet and the rain gear that I had purchased for my rock climbing trip to Colorado earlier that summer, grabbed my flashlight, and then I ventured outside.
The wind was unreal. The trees were blowing around so violently that they seemed to be trying to reach down to kill me; it was like a horror movie. The black sky was broken and streaked with green light, which seemed to be lightning shining through tons of water in the air. The wind and lightning blended into a freight train like cacophony or a very angry god. If I had imagined that it was directed at me, I would have been terrified.
I was persistent in working my way around toward the other side of the house, but after I was thrown to the ground the second time I started to worry about being killed. I finally retreated to the house for shelter before being able to see the palm tree.
I abandoned the master bedroom just in case and sat in a central portion of the house. I didn’t know what else to do.
A Terrible Mistake (The storm shifts to the south)
With nothing to do but listen for radio updates, I heard them all. Mostly they didn’t have anything new to say other than how terrible the storm was and how people were certainly dying in large numbers.
Around 3am, the radio said that the storm seemed to be shifting to the south. Instead of passing me 20 miles to the north, it was coming toward downtown Miami, which was only 1 mile to the north. That left me with a very small margin; if the storm shifted just a bit further south, it would come directly toward me.
At 5am, the radio announced that the hurricane was passing over and destroying Key Biscayne (5 miles away) and would soon cross onto the mainland. I sat in stunned silence as I realized that the storm was now heading directly for me.
My heart sank as I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. I didn’t believe my old wood frame house would stand up to the abuse, and being exposed to the elements and flying debris would certainly cost me my life. And there was nothing I could do about it. It was like piloting an airplane falling from high in the sky due to pilot error…no way to avoid the inevitable, terrible end and with too much time to regret the error.
I just sat and waited for the end. I waited for the eye wall to reach me and tear my house down and kill me. I didn’t know what else to do. I could only hope that the central portion of my house would survive and protect me from collapsing and flying debris, and could only hope that the storm surge would not be high enough to reach me at 16 feel above sea level.
Hurricane Andrew (1992) - Map of Storm Path: Real & Imagined
But the radio broadcast was wrong….the broadcaster, and so I, didn’t know these 4 things:
- The storm was destroying only the southern tip of Key Biscayne, which was 5 miles to the south of me (98% of trees were flattened)
- The storm only seemed to be further north than it was because the damage on the north side of a hurricane is worse
- The most destructive part of the storm, the eye wall, was actually much further south
- The storm was moving so quickly that the storm surge was far below the normally expected level
Instead of getting worse, the winds started to die down after a few hours. The full force of the storm has missed me.
Piecing together what really happened
It was strange to learn that the weather people really didn’t know what was happening or even where the storm was. It actually took some work after the fact to establish where the storm had traveled. While everyone had thought the storm was heading directly west, for the Dade/Broward border, it really was located much further south. While I had thought it had shifted south to head directly for me, it was never aimed in my direction. Still, a hurricane is a big storm, and I certainly learned to respect its power.
All that mattered to me at that moment was that I was going to live, at least for a while longer. But ordeal wasn’t over by a long-shot.
When the victims of Andrew and their would-be rescuers emerged from shelter sometime between 7 and 8 in the morning, they found unimaginable damage. It took four months for the toll to be tallied. But that hot and soggy Monday no one could have known that 92 percent of the power grid in South Florida needed reconstruction with 1.4 million or 84 percent of FP&L customers in Dade without power and not likely to get power for longer than a week. It would take 34 days before power was restored to 100 percent of the Dade County homes that could accept it.
Buildings on the Deering Estate (12 miles south of my house). Storm surge measured at 16.5 feet, which is higher than the elevation of my Coconut Grove house.
When I walked out into the light the morning after, it felt great to be alive. Oh, it was a terrible tragedy, but I lived. And I felt alive in a way I had never felt before. The fact that I lost some ‘stuff’ was completely irrelevant to me, emotionally.
I knew that I had some misery to endure to clean up the mess, but I didn’t really care. My life was good and I was never going to be satisfied with the way I had been wasting my life before the storm. Something had awakened in me; I wanted more adventure! And it didn’t have to be in Florida!
Aftermath (+1 to 7 days)
The next week involved a mixture of cleanup work and awe-inspiring exploration of the damage just 1/2 a block toward the bay.
The first thing I did after the storm was walk (scramble over fallen trees, really) 1 block to the park between my house and Biscayne Bay to see what happened below the limestone ridge my house sat upon. I only had to walk 1/2 a block to see that the storm surge would have reached me if I was 10 feet lower (vs. being at 16′ elevation). Where the storm was strongest, the storm surge would have just barely reached me.
And once I could see the water, I could see boats up on land everywhere. It was surreal.
At my house, the clean up involved removing all the fallen palm trees and picking up the massive volumes of debris that had come from everywhere. But my house had survived intact. My car didn’t even have any damage due to be hidden under a concrete carport.
The food in the refrigerator lasted a day before having to be thrown out onto the gigantic trash pile that would remain for many weeks.
I walked 5 blocks to the local grocery to find it had been looted. Nothing was left except for the paper trash not worth stealing.
But I had water and supplies for peanut butter sandwiches to last me for three days, and then I lived on spoonfuls of peanut butter and the occasional gift from a neighbor.
Back to Work (+8 to 14 days)
Destruction of Homestead Air Force Base
Once I managed to get back to work, the company had mobilized into helping employees who had been hit the worst. I drove a truck for a week to pickup supplies and deliver them where needed. The most amazing sights were when we delivered a fleet of trucks to Homestead Airforce Base.
On the drive down, it looked like the city had been bombed. There was not a single leaf on a tree and every roof was destroyed to some extent.
And once we arrived in Homestead, we knew where the storm had wreaked its worst damage. There were even f-16′s destroyed and laying, broken, on the ground.
It was a life changing experience, in many ways. And my love for Florida was permanently shaken.
Later that year, when I had a chance to relocate for work, I took it.
Click here to see my reports from adventures taken in the years since Hurricane Andrew