MIAMI – When Hurricane Andrew roared across South Florida 20 years ago this August, it flattened homes, uprooted trees and destroyed surburban blocks for miles around. One of just three Category 5 storms to strike the U.S. in the past 160 years, Andrew left at least 15 people dead and more than 150,000 people homeless, its 165 mph winds causing more than $25 billion in damage.
Some of the most poignant images of the aftermath were those of children: Standing in food lines, idling in sweltering heat beside damaged homes, limp in the arms of rescue workers. Once back at school, some kids hid under desks, apprehensive whenever thunderstorms approached. Others spoke of nightmares that another hurricane would strike.
"Disaster really exposes all our childhood beliefs," said Jon Shaw, a psychiatrist at the University of Miami who studied children in the aftermath of the storm. "To discover that people are unable to provide for you, protect you, is an increased understanding of how the world works."
As another hurricane season opens in June, what was one of the worst U.S. natural disasters has increasingly become a fading memory. For the children who lived through Andrew though, each new threat still brings a vivid recollection. For some, the storm even shaped the adults they became.
Laura Tsiltlidze, Dante Diaz and Marcela Rubio will each be thinking of the hurricane this summer. I will remember it, too.
In Laura Tsiltlidze's work at a large insurance company, disasters are measured in numbers: Claims filed, dollars lost, payments made. But it's hard for the 27-year-old to look at the figures coldly. She thinks of the people behind them, and she's reminded of the storm that ripped away rooftops, knocked out power and shook the walls of her family's home.
"I see it with a lot of color," she says.
Tsiltlidze, her parents and three siblings survived Hurricane Andrew crunched together in a bathroom with no windows. She remembers the wind howling as the storm gained in fury before dawn on Aug. 24, 1992. She still recalls the antsy, nervous movements of her 2-year-old brother. She could feel the walls vibrating as she leaned against them.
Then as the storm abated, she and her family walked outside and entered a changed world: Tiles, roofing, tar, leaves and garbage littered the ground. A big tree in the front yard had fallen, luckily, away from their home.
In all, authorities estimated that Andrew destroyed more than 25,000 homes and damaged more than 100,000 others as it tore through entire neighborhoods. While at least 15 deaths were directly attributed to the storm, there were reports of several other deaths indirectly from its passage.
On the ground, she and her siblings found birds injured by the debris. They picked them up from the muck and put them in shoeboxes.
"None of them survived," she says.
Several rooms, including her own, had roof damage, so the Tsiltlidzes spent weeks sleeping on the living room floor. There was no electricity for more than a month and running water was scarce. They'd take sponge baths and bathe every few days in a nearby lake.
For a child, the evening cookouts and nights spent in sleeping bags almost seemed fun. As an adult, she sees it through a different prism. Hurricanes aren't just a burst of orange, green and yellow swirling on a radar screen, or a set of numbers added up, totaling the enormity of destruction.
"These are people who have lost something," she says. "I guess it was me during Andrew."
Dante Diaz had just turned 9. He and his sister, whose birthdays are less than a month apart, were planning a party for the next week. Their mother purchased "FernGully" decorations, from an animated film about a magical rain forest, and had gifts hidden in a closet.
The Diaz family lived in a one-story, beige colored house with a white tile roof in Cutler Ridge, a middle-class neighborhood set along Biscayne Bay, just south of Miami. As the hurricane approached, Cutler Ridge was evacuated. The Diazes left nearly everything behind: their dogs, family photographs, books, clothing, the birthday presents.
As Diaz settled into sleep at his grandmother's house that night, the sound of a window slamming shut awoke him. Small rocks began banging against the house, and a metal shed rattled in the yard as the wind tore it apart. The family gathered in a closet and Diaz fell asleep standing up.
Hours later, his grandmother's white colored house was green from the leaves stuck to the exterior. At his home in Cutler Ridge, the windows were blown out and the ceiling caving in. The dogs had survived but were covered in insulation. It was six months before the family could move back. Diaz recalls trying to salvage books and clothing from his bedroom, and his dad promising to buy him all new stuff. The birthday gifts were still in his mother's closet, but the packaging was so wet he could push his fingers through them.
"I remember thinking how remarkable it was, that wind could do all that," says Diaz, now 28.
As the years passed, Diaz grew more and more curious about what happened. He checked out books on hurricanes from the library. By high school, he was tracking hurricanes at home and had decided to study meteorology. Today, he is a tropical meteorologist, tracking hurricanes and tropical storms for ImpactWeather in Texas. A fellow meteorologist there, Andrew Hagen, also was a child living in Miami during Hurricane Andrew.
At work, Diaz keeps photographs in a notebook of his house after the storm. He looks at them every day.
Marcela Rubio lived in Honduras, but in the summer of 1992, her mother was working as a live-in housekeeper in Miami. Rubio went to visit and in late August they found themselves caught in the fury of Andrew.
Her mother worked for a Lebanese-Israeli family that lived in an apartment near the water. Like others, they decided to pass the storm at a friend's house further inland. Rubio remembers being excited about spending the weekend at a big house with a shaded pool.
The 10 adults and four children at the house crammed into a hallway as the strongest winds approached. They held their knees to their chests and listened to a battery-operated radio. Rubio recalls the nervous worried talk of the adults, uttered in French, Arab and Israeli accents.
"This is worse than the war in Lebanon!" one cried.
The house was barely left standing: The windows and roof were gone by the time the last gusts ceased. Everything, she remembers, was covered in glass, like something she might have seen in Honduras.
"To see that happen in the United States, a wealthy nation, somewhat connected the two places in my mind and made them equal for a brief moment," she said.
She returned to Honduras but moved to the United States a year later, and the storm has remained a vestige connecting her to Miami. Today, Rubio, 27, is a caseworker for the City of Miami Beach. Each hurricane season, she makes presentations to the elderly on storm preparations.
"There is a deep understanding among those who went through (Andrew)," she said. "But I feel that it has almost become folklore, and it could never happen again."
My house was largely spared but our neighborhood was mostly demolished.
A two-story house on our block was reduced to one. The trees that had neatly lined our street were scattered across the lawns in pieces, or missing altogether. A few doors down, my friend's house was left uninhabitable. I remember going inside with her to try and find clothing; most of it was ruined. When we looked up to the ceiling we could see the sky.
It's the sky I remember most vividly. Stars are usually hard to see in Miami. The city is large, dense and filled with lights. But for those few weeks without electricity, nature provided us with an exquisite view.
The recovery felt unbearably long. I remember the empty aisles at the supermarket, and going from one store to another in search of bottled water and a generator to power our refrigerator with my parents. When we finally found a block of dry ice, our joy was uncontainable.
Slowly, the streets were cleared and roofs repaired. My father and our neighbors lined the block with royal palms, chosen because they were the most likely to withstand another storm, though they looked small and unremarkable when they were first put in.
A year later, I was assigned at school to write an essay on a life-changing experience. I wrote about Hurricane Andrew. The essay won a school prize and there began my interest in chronicling stories. Many other events would chart the path toward becoming a journalist, but if it had not been for Hurricane Andrew, I may never have discovered the value of capturing experience in writing.
I am reminded of the sights and sounds of Andrew whenever I report on a storm today.
The house where we lived looks remarkably similar to how it did before the storm. There is a new owner and to a passer-by, it would be hard to tell a hurricane had ever blown through. The only thing that looks different is the trees. They now reach high above the tallest rooftops on the street.