Diary of a disaster
Compiled by Times staff writers
Photo -- National Hurricane Center
Satellite photo of Hurricane Andrew hitting the coast of Florida.
Gary Schneider sees it first.
Sunday, Aug. 16 at 11 p.m. He is making his radar check at the National Weather Service in Coral Gables. A tropical wave drifting west from the African coast suddenly is growing angrier.
No big concern. This is hurricane season. These things happen.
"I didn't think anything unusual," Schneider says.
He would be proven so wrong.
From Fort Pierce to Key West. From Miami Beach to St. Petersburg Beach, the events of the next 10 days would become part of local histories. For those Floridians hit by Andrew, to others who simply ducked and got lucky, this hurricane instantly became a life-defining moment. It was the big one.
Yet, the fury and scope of this disaster caught the conscience of a nation, too.
Gov. Lawton Chiles would move in and stay. President Bush would make two trips and promise billions of dollars to rebuild. His Army, the Army of Desert Storm destruction, would become the troops of aid and comfort.
But in many ways, the story of Hurricane Andrew is one of private heroics amid a public tragedy. A simple force of nature -- high winds and low pressure -- moved methodically on and left not so simple problems in its wake. No one who watched it slowly approach and quickly go would be left without respect for its power to demolish buildings and change lives.
With Hurricane Andrew due east of the Bahamas and headed west, cars crawl across Highway 60.
Radio stations advise people in South Florida -- the projected landfall for the storm -- to leave. School closings are announced, hospitals cancel elective procedures.
The Holiday Inn in Fort Pierce, more than 100 miles north of Miami, is booked. So is the Holiday Inn in Ocala. Go to Orlando, those fleeing from the south are told. Soon enough they take that advice and clog that city of seemingly endless hotel space.
Sunday dawns, and the pace quickens. Not quite panic, but not calm either.
Even inland, at Lake Okeechobee, there is fear. People talk about hurricanes as far back as the 1920s as they board and tape their windows.
Keith Bourgault's parents are out of town, but the 18-year-old decides to open the family hardware store in Okeechobee on Sunday.
By 11 a.m., batteries, flashlights, rope and tape are running short.
A couple of doors down, the Village Square Restaurant ("Catfish and Frog legs. All you can eat") is full of folks eating what could be their last hot meal for some time.
At 3:15 p.m., the Fort Lauderdale airport is empty but for the frantic few trying to get out. Others arrive from cruise vacations, too late for a flight, and nap on benches. Shelters await those who just hours before had slept in luxury.
By 4 p.m. Miami International Airport is edging toward frantic.
James Pierce, a United Airlines ticket agent, handles the pleas of the desperate and frightened.
"You would ask them where they want to go and they would say, "Anywhere.' You could book them to Hong Kong, Germany -- anywhere."
South, in the fortresslike Emergency Operations Center in Kendall, Dade County officials make regular reports on a movement of people so massive only wartime can compare.
45,000 are in shelters.
250 pregnant women are at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Police crews using bullhorns are clearing the beach homes.
* * *
Counting heavily on local radio and television stations, officials are pleading with residents who won't leave and those who mistakenly believe hospitals are shelters.
As night falls, toll booths are dark and abandoned. The eeriness of the scene replaces any small joy gained from not having to pay.
Hurricane Andrew is now battering the outer islands. The frightened voices of Bahamian residents crackle over the airwaves, describing the monster that is now just hours away.
More than 200 elderly people in wheelchairs are stranded at the Brookwood Gardens Convalescent Home in Homestead. Andrew is just 12 hours away. One hospital takes in five of Brookwood's most seriously sick people, but another hospital backs out on a promise to take seven others.
Edna Robinson, a 105-year-old patient, falls. Someone calls the police, who arrive and are angered to find so many frail and elderly still so vulnerable as the storm approaches. Metro-Dade buses are summoned immediately.
At 11 p.m. the three buses with the Brookwood Gardens Home residents pull up outside Richmond Heights Middle School, a shelter that is already full. More than 1,000 worried people sprawl out on their blankets along the school's hallways and crowd into its classrooms, auditorium and lunchroom.
Frank Hill, the shelter's volunteer manager, is taken aback by the buses and their unexpected passengers. A dozen people staying inside the school volunteer. Young men and women and some small girls carry the tense and bewildered people in their arms, through the aluminum doors of the school and set the wheelchairs up in rows just inside the doors. The Brookwood patients sit for a long time, blinking at the bright lights and the crowds of people rushing around.
The Red Cross hasn't delivered food, water or any medical supplies to the shelter, which would end up with 2,500 people by the time the storm is over. A volunteer team of nurses gets by largely on what Ethel Finley has brought from home: liquid Tylenol, a few diapers, bandages and a Thermos full of coffee.
At about 1 a.m., all the Brookwood patients move to the lunchroom. Some lie on tumbling mats. There are no blankets.
"It's going to be a long night," says Kathleen Vostenak, a Brookwood nurse.
About 4:45 a.m., the howling starts.
It is not much like a freight train, because the sound of a freight train is either coming nearer or fading away. Hurricane Andrew is right here on top of the school, beating relentlessly.
The howling is punctuated by the staccato beating of what sounds like hail or rain.
A small brigade of police officers tries to keep people away from the front doors, as objects driven by the wind begin to crater the metal door.
Four panels in the ceiling of a second-floor hallway collapse, and rain falls unimpeded inside.
A window blows out in a classroom, and the room floods.
The auditorium floods.
The lunchroom floods.
Someone finds mops, and people begin swabbing the floors. The wind lets up a bit, and many wonder whether this is the eye of the hurricane.
A woman in a wheelchair begs to be moved away from a doorway. "Please move me. I don't want to be in front of that opening when it starts again."
Almost as soon as the great blast subsides, people begin streaming into the shelter from the surrounding neighborhood of Richmond Heights. They are dripping wet, muddy, and many of them burst into tears as they arrive inside. Four elderly people are carried directly to the tumbling mats in the lunchroom, where the Brookwood patients watch them in silent alarm.
At about 4:50 a.m., Hurricane Andrew takes a swipe at the National Hurricane Center, knocking radar equipment and wind vanes from the roof. Inside the center, a graph suddenly stops recording wind speed. It shows the storm peaking at 164 mph.
At 5 a.m., the main door to Dade County's Emergency Command Center -- a thick metal door that could seal a bank vault -- is locked shut, but the storm can still be heard inside the windowless building. The wind sneaks into the building through some cracks or crevices and makes an eerie whistling sound. Is this the sound of a building just before collapse?
Somehow, at 6 a.m., Channel 4 is still on the air, with the anchors broadcasting from a closet. Meteorologist Bryan Norcross is going on his 20th hour on camera. The station's radar picture of Andrew shows the eye of the storm passing from the populated area of Dade into the Everglades. The horseshoe-shaped eye shows on the radar in bright yellow.
At 7 a.m., officials open the heavy doors on the county command center and peek over each other through a locked chain-link gate.
Andrew has moved on, but for a time no one knows for sure what it has left behind.
The first words, broadcast over radio and television, are of relief.
Miami has been spared -- or so it seems.
Times Photo by RICARDO FERRO
At. first light after Hurricane Andrew's fury, one man begins to clean up in North Miami Beach.
In Palm Beach, the early news reports seem true. Except for palm fronds that litter the yards of oceanfront mansions, property damage is minimal.
The killer Hurricane Andrew looks like Andy the Dud.
But as one drives south toward Miami under drizzly skies, frightening clues begin to appear.
At a hotel near Miami International Airport -- jammed to capacity with hurricane evacuees -- guests sit in the dark as waiters light sterno for instant coffee. Some venture outside with video cameras to survey the parking lot. Without TVs or radios, guests, like virtually everyone in Miami at this hour, are forced to speculate on the rest of the city. Is it still standing?
As one continues south along U.S. 1 in Kendall, the havoc worsens. A U-Haul truck is upside down, on top of a warehouse.
Andrew's remnants are still here; overcast skies, bands of rain, gusts of wind and cracks of lightning. As residents of Naples still await the fury, people here realize their lives have fundamentally changed. In some cases, everything is gone.
Standing on his front lawn in the Sunniland subdivision of Kendall, Al Scott wears Walkman headphones and stares at his missing roof. His son's bedroom took the worst hit from Andrew. It is just a shell, with little boy's clothes hanging from broken bits of the ceiling.
"Dad, what happened to our things?" his son asks. "Well," says Scott, gently, "they're probably down on 152nd Avenue."
Mary Webb stands in the debris of her front yard, holding a cup of coffee and calling for her Doberman, who ran off during the hurricane. "I'm exhausted," says Webb, a Florida native.
"Are you the Allstate lady?" a woman asks a stranger.
Neighbors hug each other on front lawns, some weeping, others wide-eyed and silent.
Further south in Perrine, a small band of looters with shopping carts empties out the convenience mart at a Mobil Station. In Cutler Ridge, auto dealerships look like aluminum recycling centers, new cars stacked like crushed cans.
* * *
In Miami Heights, a working-class neighborhood hit particularly hard by Andrew, a woman stands on a street corner with her three children. "Please call the Red Cross," she says to a passerby, her eyes frantic. "Please tell them to come quick."
Five miles to the south. Noon. Homestead. Complete devastation.
Sirens and alarms float through the thick air.
Though trucks had canvassed the neighborhoods on Sunday announcing an evacuation, about 30 percent of the residents chose to stay. Now, they are the first to wander through their crumbling streets. Some are already looking for water.
Across from the police station, a bike shop is emptied by looters. At a gun shop, Wayne Ashling wears a pair of waders and a Glock pistol on his hip.
"This city might as well dry up and leave," he says, hurrying to load his inventory as looters pillage a nearby store.
At City Hall, City Manager Alex Muxo wears a growth of beard and a Cleveland Indians cap. "Ninety percent of the city is lost," says Muxo.
Government is trying. The National Guard is on the way. Rescue officers are going through trailer parks with dogs, sniffing out the dead or injured. Yet there is still a feeling of chaos.
There are two working phone lines in the entire city. Police can't communicate. Muxo is having trouble convincing the outside world his city is devastated. "I keep telling them, "This is where the problem is,' " he says.
By early afternoon, Dayamis Gonzalez and her family return to their house. Three chickens from the backyard coop are lying dead in a pile on the street. The tropical fish tank exploded, giving the Gonzalezes' duplex a foul stench. Part of the roof is gone, and every piece of furniture is soaked except one -- the water bed. It still has dry sheets.
Police ride through the ruined streets with shotguns in their laps. At a Sears, looters exchange shots with police.
A 7 p.m. curfew is imposed. Anyone on the street will be arrested.
Times photo by KATHLEEN CABBLE
Much graffiti, such as this sign posted by Homestead storm victims, is directed at looters.
On Tuesday, the hungry and thirsty begin lining up at City Hall by 10 a.m. "Thank God we're here, but we lost it all," says Yolanda Araiza, a vegetable picker. "The only thing we want is food and water. They won't give us anything but two cans each. Before the storm, we bought food for yesterday and today, but nothing for tomorrow."
Gallon jugs of water are distributed from City Hall, one per person. Many people have walked two miles in 94-degree heat to get the water.
There are still no shelters.
By late afternoon, the first of the Salvation Army trucks arrive from Georgia with 1,000 sandwiches. Other donations and volunteers begin to trickle in. Traffic worsens as people leap from their cars to race for the supply trucks.
Early evening Tuesday, Homestead Middle School is broken into with bolt cutters by frustrated rescue workers from Charleston, S.C. A shelter is hastily opened.
Three homeowners stand in line at a pay phone, failing to get through to State Farm insurance on the company's toll-free line, while high above in the Sky 4 helicopter, Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher surveys the damage and dispenses advice for those people who still have working TVs.
Lula McGregor, an old woman who fled Homestead on the back of her son's motorcycle before the hurricane, is sitting in the last row of chairs at City Hall, clutching a small pillow to her chest. The storm destroyed her mobile home. Her belongings are sitting in a suitcase behind her, beside her son's motorcycle helmet. He hasn't returned. She's been sitting for hours waiting for a bus.
"I think they've got a poor setup here for emergencies," she says in a frail voice. She adds, "I don't want to miss that metro driver."
Three police officers come to take her to the Homestead emergency shelter. She looks up and asks one, "Are you the metro driver?"
"The chariot's waiting right outside," he assures her.
Minutes later, three men wearing county bus uniforms walk in, asking where their rider is. One apologizes for being late. Until they get clearance from a supervisor, "we can't move," he says.
As time inches on, the heat is oppressive. Tempers shorten. There is anger toward Gov. Chiles. A lot toward Bush, too. And many locals suspect this is the kind of treatment reserved for the poor of the county.
Three days after the storm, there is but a handful of working pay phones scattered throughout Homestead, a city of 30,000. On affluent Key Biscayne, La Boulangerie bakery plays Vivaldi on a battery-powered CD-player.
The Miami Herald's Food section offers this no-cook recipe for the storm ravaged: "Canned chunk chicken tossed with canned black olives and chopped onion and dressed with Dijon mustard, oil and vinegar."
Days after the storm, Homestead is a political war zone.
As the week progresses, amid the shattered buildings and debris-strewn roads, soldiers build tent cities, unload supplies and guard intersections. Everyone, it seems, is now in camouflage fatigues. There is more green in the uniforms than in the trees.
Government officials, proud of the ever-increasing presence of the military, brag that the relief effort is picking up speed.
"We have seen dramatic improvements on the ground in Homestead, Florida City and Cutler Ridge in the last 24 hours," U.S. Transportation Secretary Andrew Card says Monday.
However, storm victims in South Dade are still complaining of sanitation problems, rotting food and the increasing number of mosquitoes and rats.
And a number of them swear they will not leave their ruined houses to bivouac in Army tents, fearing looters and the feeling of complete displacement.
Criticism of the government response to the disaster spurs political sniping back and forth -- Bush and Chiles both dancing oddly around responsibility for government's slow response here.
At one point Bush tells the nation he doesn't want to be part of the "blame game" and the "Who shot John?"
In another moment, Chiles turns to theology.
State Sen. Javier Souto warns the governor "if we don't move fast enough, we're going to have the biggest ghetto south of Harlem down there."
At that, Chiles erupts. "We had a ghetto down there. The good Lord helped us get rid of those. Now we're going to build it better."
President Bush makes his second journey to South Florida. A woman sits in a crowded shelter, and a CNN reporter asks what she would like from the president.
"A wall," she says.
©Copyright 1999, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.