Reconstructing Andrew, The Storm That Made Time Stand Still
MIAMI (AP) _ Most disasters strike without warning - earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, plane crashes, car wrecks. No time to make preparations. Little time to flee or to pray, to tell your wife you love her or to worry about the kids.
But time is what makes hurricanes so devastating. There is time to worry, and time to make decisions. Time to plot coordinates, and time to listen to forecasts. Time to be cavalier, and time to be scared. Time to stay, and time to get out.
Hurricane Andrew struck twice after midnight, an all-too-real nightmare that advanced slowly at first and then built to a tortuous fury that made time stand still. It moved through Florida, then Louisiana, in a matter of hours, but survivors recalled it as lasting a lifetime.
″We thought we were going to die, so we just kept yelling that we loved each other,″ said John Fulton, buried with nine relatives under the rubble of a home for 5 1/2 hours near Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base.
The story of Andrew began Aug. 16, before the opening of the Republican National Convention, when a meteorologist quietly considered whether to classify some troubling clouds as a tropical depression.
With 31 lives lost in Florida, Louisiana and the Bahamas, at least 250,000 people left homeless, and countless businesses damaged or destroyed, for thousands of people, it is a story that will last forever.
At 11 p.m. on Aug. 16, a quiet Sunday night during one of the quietest Atlantic hurricane seasons in recent memory, Gary Schneider was working the radar shift at the National Weather Service in Coral Gables, Fla.
Schneider ambled over to the adjacent National Hurricane Center, which monitors hurricanes all over the world, and noticed that a tropical wave drifting west from the African coast had turned into a well-organized tropical system.
It was nothing out of the ordinary to see the formation of a tropical depression in August. After all, the normal peak of hurricane season was just three weeks away.
″I didn’t think anything unusual,″ Schneider said.
He was wrong. The embryonic swirls of Andrew, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, already were starting to grow. It was a precocious weather system, transforming into Tropical Storm Andrew, the first of the season, within 12 hours.
Still, the signals were contradictory.
By Thursday, when the nation’s attention was focused on President Bush’s acceptance of the GOP nomination for president, Andrew appeared to be swirling into anonymity, growing more disorganized as it bumped into other weather systems.
Meteorologist Jack Beven described Andrew as ″a poorly organized storm″ that he ″didn’t think would become a hurricane within the next 24 hours.″
But within the next 24 hours, the cagy tropical storm gained strength and set a west-northwest course for Florida.
Hurricane Center Director Bob Sheets tried to reassure nervous south Floridians.
″Just go about your normal activities,″ he said Friday afternoon. ″Don’t get all that concerned at this stage.″
At 5 a.m. Saturday, Hurricane Andrew was born - more than six hours before it was expected. The storm 800 miles east of Miami was projected to be a threat to the Southeast United States, and a hurricane watch was issued for the Bahamas’ northwest islands.
Hurricane specialist Richard Pasch first gave the ominous warning that a separate storm system to the north might prevent the characteristic northern turn of hurricanes that has spared heavily developed south Florida for more than a decade.
At 11 a.m., the storm set a dead course to the west, aimed at miles and miles of suburban neighborhoods that have grown in south Dade County like the prolific melaleuca trees blanketing the Everglades.
The storm began to grow at an alarming rate, reaching winds of 150 mph by Sunday. Forecasters said it could become a Category 5 storm of more than 155 mph by the time it reached Florida, and more than a million people were ordered to flee inland from the path of the storm.
On Miami Beach, 73-year-old Irving Goldberg was waiting to be picked up at an evacuation point Sunday morning.
″I want to go somewhere way out west,″ he said. ″I want to be out of the area completely.″
John Fulton, the man who ended up trapped under a house with nine relatives, went with his family to a designated street corner at 6 p.m. Sunday to catch an evacuation bus. The bus never showed; the family went back home.
Others in the southern part of Dade County, some not in flood-prone areas and outside evacuation orders, decided to stay. Marie Dunn and her husband simply boarded up their home and prepared to ride out the storm.
David Bentley of Perrine never took the warnings seriously. He watched a movie on HBO Sunday night, then went to bed.
″I was pretty arrogant about the whole thing,″ said the 50-year-old maintenance worker at Miami Dade Community College.
Relatives called Jesse James and asked him to leave the camper where he had lived since a stabbing made him give up his job as a trash collector in the city of Miami and flee to the less-violent southern suburbs.
He, too, said no.
The storm began at 2 a.m. for Tammy Lyon.
″That’s when the electricity went off,″ she said. She and her husband watched with each flash of lightning how the tree in their yard in Homestead bent sideways in the wind.
″Finally, it just uprooted and we heard it come out of the ground, hit our roof and land on the other side of our house on top of his truck. Then one window broke in the living room and everything started flying around inside - glass and all of our stuff,″ Ms. Lyon said.
With their baby and their huge black Labrador, the couple hid in a closet while the hurricane blew a hole through their roof and blasted into their bedroom. Cinderblock concrete walls were shaking. So when a slight lull came, the family bolted for a neighbor’s larger house, where a battle was on to keep Andrew out.
″Everybody was taking doors off the inside doors and nailing them up to the windows,″ Ms. Lyon said.
Neville Orridge, his wife and his mother were jammed in a linen closet in their Perrine home.
″We just kept hearing ‘boom, boom, boom 3/8’ It is the scariest thing. You can see it on TV. You can read about it. You can’t really imagine it until you experience it,″ Orridge said.
When a lull came, they, too, abandoned their shaky A-frame home and ran for sanctuary in a neighbor’s larger dwelling.
At the Dunn’s home in Florida City, Andrew blew the plywood protection off at 5 a.m. Scared and braced for the worst, there was time for the couple to talk frankly about their marriage.
″I said: ‘Gary, I love you. This may be the last chance I have to say it,’ ″ Marie Dunn said.
At about the same time, Sarah Artecona was feeling particularly helpless. Manning the phones at the Metro-Dade Communications Department, she watched the 911 emergency lines gleam ″like Christmas lights all up and down the board.″
″I couldn’t do anything for these people,″ she said. ″That was the toughest part - listening to these people.″
The worst part of the storm was over for most by dawn.
At 6 a.m. Monday, Ms. Lyon realized she had lost everything - and had no insurance.
David Bentley, who had watched the cable television movie, lost his house and everything he owned, except his Detroit Lions baseball cap and a carry-on bag of clothes.
Neville Orridge’s roof caved in and his furniture was drenched.
A few hours later, John Fulton, his mother, his niece and seven brothers and sisters dug themselves out and made it to a shelter.
Jesse James, 47, was found dead in the camper he had refused to leave. An avocado tree had crushed his home.
Fear built quickly in New Orleans. Revered weather forecaster Nash Roberts came out of retirement to go on the air with his old-fashioned map, magic markers and hurricane intuition.
If the Crescent City were to take a shot like Miami, the below-sea-level city would be a swamp.
Peggy Broussard and her husband spent a quiet weekend at their getaway home in a fishing camp called Cypremort Point. The weather was too rough for fishing, so their played ″bouree,″ a kind of Cajun bridge, with another couple.
They went home to Jeanerette on Sunday night, then heard of the hurricane Monday morning. Mrs. Broussard raced back to the coast all day, moving four truckloads of belongs from the weekend home.
Dallas Fontenot, a retired oil worker from Bayou Vista in St. Mary Parish of coastal Louisiana, started getting edgy Sunday afternoon when he saw Andrew bearing down on Florida. When the scenes of mass devastation began to emerge Monday, Fontenot taped all his windows with duct tape, moved things inside and lashed belongings together with rope.
″I saw what happened in Florida,″ he said. ″It got my attention. I secured everything I could think of.″
Fontenot filled jugs with drinking water and stored ice inside his freezer, just in case. He also filled a 55-gallon drum with water so he’d have something to flush the toilet with.
At 11 a.m. Monday, his wife left town to stay with a daughter in Baton Rouge. Fontenot stayed behind to finish up his chores.
″I was going to stick it out here, but I chickened out. I figured I can’t do nothing here. It wasn’t anything to mess with. So I left at 6 o’clock that evening in my pickup truck,″ he said.
Edward Gary, too, got a queasy feeling Sunday when he saw Andrew’s path. The Morgan City, La., laborer figured the storm would cross southern Florida, then rip into the Gulf of Mexico on a line toward Louisiana.
He was right.
He gathered his wife and son at 6 p.m. Monday evening for a drive north to Alexandria. They lived in a mobile home in Bayou Vista, so there wasn’t much they could do to prepare.
″When I left my door, I turned around to take one last look,″ he said. ″I knew there wasn’t any protection for me. Somehow, I knew it wasn’t going to be here.″
Louisiana had the benefit of television pictures from Florida and the luck that Andrew would, for a change, bear down on a sparsely populated area. Especially for the laissez-faire Cajuns, who have weathered numerous storms and take dire predictions with a grain of good cheer, Andrew’s devastation in Florida made a massive evacuation possible.
″A lot of people would not have left, believe me, if it hadn’t been for Florida,″ said Marcelle Hussey of New Iberia, La.
By noon Tuesday, the storm had passed south of New Orleans, heading for the marshes of the southern coast.
Mrs. Broussard was in her Jeanerette home Tuesday night, looking out the curtains and shining a flashlight outside.
″I said, ‘Look Andrew, I’ve had enough of this,’ ″ she recalled.
Power went out at 2 a.m. Wednesday. The radio wouldn’t work either. ″I told Ned we are cut off from the outside world,″ Mrs. Broussard said.
The Broussards returned to Cypremort late Wednesday, finding roof damage but nothing as serious as the damage to their neighbors’ homes.
″We were slick this time. We stripped our camp,″ Mrs. Broussard said.
The Fontenots returned early Thursday to count themselves among the lucky, too. Their brick ranch home had suffered some roof damage, and twisted chunks of aluminum siding, roofing tiles and refuse from everywhere littered the back yard.
″I’m not complaining a bit,″ he said. ″I got everybody else’s trash in my back yard, but we’re OK.″
Gary, the Morgan City laborer who fled to Alexandria, began the three-hour drive home at 3:30 a.m. Thursday with a gnawing fear in his stomach.
At daybreak, he reached the spot where his uninsured trailer used to be. Only the back wall was standing. Ten years of his life and his possessions were scattered with the wind.
″It wasn’t much, but it was my home,″ he said. ″It kept me out of the rain, put a roof over my head. My home is gone, finished.
″What do I do now?″
EDITOR’S NOTE - This account of Hurricane Andrew’s four-day reign of terror was reported by Beth Duff-Brown, Will Lester, Patrick Reyna, Dan Sewell, Christopher Sullivan and Michael Warren in Miami, and by Robert Dvorchak and Bill Kaczor in Louisiana. It was written by Southwest Regional Reporter Scott McCartney, who rode out the storm in Miami and in New Orleans.