AFTER THE STORM // Storm's howl fills the ears of survivors

Published Aug. 18, 2002|Updated June 20, 2006

When Dan Sanabria walks through Publix, he automatically looks for shelter. If he sees an enclosed space away from the windows, he thinks, "That would be a good place to hide."

For years Mary Herzog, didn't hang a picture on her walls because she feared losing everything again.

"That's how whacked out I became," she says, shaking her head. "Every time there's thunder and wind, it brings it all back."

George Brown's daily reminder towers over his front yard: two mahogany trees, one alive, one nearly dead. On Aug. 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew knocked them both over, killing one. Brown wanted to save the survivor but he couldn't cut them apart.

"The roots were intertwined, and I thought if I tried to separate them it would kill them both," he said. "So I stuck them in together."

For Sanabria, Herzog, Brown and their neighbors on SW 294th Terrace, 10 years after Hurricane Andrew tore through their tiny cul-de-sac, the nation's worst natural disaster still haunts them.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled South Florida for higher ground, some of them permanently. But for those who stayed, who slowly rebuilt their homes and their lives, the memories of the devastation Andrew wrought are intertwined with those of better days.

They can't cut away one without losing the other.

Ten houses line SW 294th Terrace, tucked between U.S. 1 and Homestead Air Force Base. Among the first residents were Air Force veteran Charles Wilson and his wife, Dora. They bought a house there in the 1970s because it was 10 minutes from the base and stuck around after he retired.

The base once employed 6,500 military personnel and 1,000 civilians, making it the mainstay of the local economy.

Homestead was home to more than 26,000 people, with another 9,000 in nearby Florida City. Thousands more filled surrounding unincorporated areas like Naranja and Leisure City. There were sprawling mobile home parks where neighbors gathered Friday nights for potluck suppers, and migrant camps of Haitians, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Mexicans hired to cultivate Dade County's vegetable crops.

The daily routines _ eat, sleep, work, watch TV _ seemed as fixed as the stars. Twenty-seven quiet summers had passed since the last deadly hurricane, Betsy, hit South Florida in 1965.

So on Aug. 16, 1992, when the National Weather Service reported a tropical depression forming 3,500 miles away near Africa, few paid attention.

But by Sunday, Aug. 23, Hurricane Andrew was closing in on South Florida. Panicked shoppers jammed grocery and hardware stores. The highways clogged. More than 700,000 people evacuated, though many went only a few miles. Thousands more decided to stick it out.

Wilson didn't evacuate because for years storms had roared toward South Florida and then swerved. He was convinced Andrew would do the same.

"We were in for a big surprise," he said.

Dan Sanabria had no clue a storm was coming. He spent all weekend moving from the Princetonian Mobile Home Park to the new house he would share with his elderly parents on SW 294th Terrace.

He finished late Sunday. Exhausted, Sanabria fell sleep. Before dawn on Monday, Aug. 24, 1992, odd noises jolted him awake.

"The shed in the back yard was going up and down. The sliding glass door started to move in and out," he said. Then came "something horrendous. That sound is one thing I'll never forget."

Many survivors groped for the right words to describe Andrew's howl. They compared it to a freight train in the living room, a fighter jet on the roof. To George Brown, it sounded like his house was being blasted away by a giant shotgun.

Andrew was compact, just 60 miles across, but so ferocious its winds blew away the instruments that were supposed to measure them.

Top gusts hit 175 mph, making Andrew a Category 4 hurricane, not quite the strongest on the scale. Researchers are still debating whether it should be reclassified as a Category 5.

Sanabria and his parents crowded into their new bathroom and braced themselves against the door.

"When the eye passed over I went out for a look and we had no roof," Sanabria said. "Three minutes after we left the bathroom, the ceiling collapsed."

Across the street, Mary Herzog just hunkered down when her windows blew out. "I was staying with my home and was going to die where I was," she said.

She survived. Others did not. Fifteen people were killed during the storm and another 25 later died of indirect causes. Andrew demolished more than 25,000 homes and damaged another 100,000. It flattened the air base. Of the 1,176 mobile homes in Homestead, all but nine were destroyed.

Right after Andrew, Sanabria drove by the mobile home he had just left.

All he found was the toilet.

Five days after the storm, Maj. Gen. Richard B. Griffits landed in Homestead with 23,000 troops, the biggest peacetime domestic military operation in U.S. history. The devastation stunned him.

"I had never seen a place completely leveled in all directions," Griffits later recalled. "There was a smell to it. A smell of utter destruction."

On SW 294th, every home was damaged, but the change went deeper. Andrew had plunged the survivors into a primitive world with no air conditioning, no microwaves, no TV to show them what was going on in the other neighborhoods smashed by the storm.

Gwendolyn Sherman, now 23, has vivid memories of those jittery, pitch-black nights. With no way to cool the house, "we left the doors open, so I was nervous with all the looting that was going on."

When George Brown spotted some thieves, he chased them away at gunpoint. "They didn't want to talk to Mr. Twelve Gauge," he said.

Sunrise brought the rumble of portable generators, the pounding of hammers and the constant whir of helicopters that scared the migrant workers who thought they were about to be strafed.

From above, the battered cul-de-sac seemed to blend in with all the other battered neighborhoods. Andrew caused an estimated $30-billion in damage and left a quarter-million people homeless.

In the first few days, no rescue agency sprang to action fast enough to help the storm's victims. People went days without water. Hungry residents queued up for hours for food that never arrived.

By the time donations began pouring in from around the country, the survivors were ready to snap. As Mary Herzog stood in a line for free clothing, people around her started fighting. Weary, she lay down in a pile of clothes.

"I said the hell with it, I'm just going to take a nap," she said.

For some victims the prospect of the long struggle ahead was too much to bear.

Before the storm, five condominiums made up Naranja Lakes, population 3,500, mostly retirees. Three of them died during Andrew. Hurricane experts say it was ground zero for the storm's impact.

Afterward, four condo associations reviewed the damage and voted themselves out of existence. The fifth decided to rebuild. Reconstruction took more than a year and cost half the property's value, said association president Len Anthony, 73. Had the 200 residents known that in advance, he said, they would have given up, too.

Today their condo still stands alone, surrounded by the weed-covered slabs of the others. People call it "The Dead Zone." In retrospect, Anthony said, "the county should've condemned the property and forced everybody to move."

More than 100,000 South Dade residents moved away. The migration altered the area's racial makeup, according to a Florida International University study.

Most white evacuees "found they liked where they moved better, so they sold their houses for cheap," said Lilia Cunningham, an FIU researcher. Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to rebuild or move into areas the whites had left, FIU found.

The cul-de-sac lost several families, including the Wilsons.

For years Charles Wilson's wife, Dora, a Texas native, had tried to talk him into moving there. Wilson resisted because of his strong ties to Homestead.

But now the base was gone. The Sears where he worked was damaged. The 7-Eleven, where he had a second job, was blown to bits. And every room of his house had a quarter-inch of standing water.

"I went to bed with two jobs and a home," Wilson said. "I woke up with no jobs and a piece of a home."

Two months after the storm the Wilsons sold their $46,000 home for $15,000 and moved to El Paso.

The new residents, the Shropshire family, toiled for months to repair the house while living in a backyard trailer. They were happy to have something with walls still standing, after what Andrew did to the Leisure City home where they used to live.

During the storm "I just prayed and I prayed and I prayed and I prayed," said Pearlie Shropshire. When it was over, recalled her son Travis, "the only thing left up was the bed we was under."

Rebuilding brought its own frustrations. Mary Herzog caught her contractor using debris to repair her roof instead of new lumber. The Shermans' contractor took their $15,000 and disappeared.

When then-Gov. Lawton Chiles toured South Dade a year after Andrew, one woman told him, "My contractor was on America's Most Wanted last night."

Contractor fraud made a long recovery even longer for some victims, said B.J. Behnken, vice president for Project Teamwork, one Andrew relief agency still at work.

"Even three or four years after the storm we still had people living in trailers behind their homes, living in sheds, living in half a home," Behnken said.

Project Teamwork has 10 houses left. "Most of them are elderly people or people with mental problems," Behnken said. "It's just a nightmare."

Some storm survivors are still battling psychological problems, the FIU study found. One boy who was 7 at the time was so traumatized that he refuses as a 17-year-old to go more than five blocks from his house, Cunningham said.

In Andrew's wake, domestic violence complaints in Dade County shot up 50 percent, divorce rates by 30 percent. FIU researchers found that many of the couples who split after the storm did so because of money _ not too little, but too much.

"These marriages already were in trouble and all of a sudden they had $60,000 or $80,000," Cunningham said. "It was easier to split the money in half than to fix the marriage."

Homestead's population has since rebounded to its 1992 level. Because the city had so much vacant land, developers who have run out of room elsewhere in Dade have gobbled up the cheap acreage there, even buying Naranja Lakes' empty slabs.

City officials plan to observe the 10th anniversary of Andrew's rampage with a "Celebrate Our Second Wind Music and Arts Festival," with bands, a motorcycle show and the flying of 100 kites. Some survivors wonder if it's right to celebrate such a tragedy.

"It's not really a celebration of the hurricane, but a celebration of our progress," said city spokesman Charles LaPradd. "One of the main things is to say thank you to everybody who helped us: the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the little fire departments from the middle of nowhere that helped us rebuild."

Many of Homestead's new residents are recent arrivals in Florida who missed Andrew's fury. But some are Andrew victims at last returning home.

Charles Wilson is one. Now a widower, he moved back from Texas five months ago to a condo not far from the cul-de-sac. Yet he is still surrounded by reminders of the storm that drove him away.

"You see the water marks on all the furniture?" he asked, pointing around the room at the couch and chairs he has owned for more than 10 years.

He knows now he was wrong to try to ride out a hurricane at home. If a storm like Andrew ever returned, he said, "I'd just shut up the house, lock the doors and go."

_ Staff photographer Jack Rowland and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Pearlie Shropshire, who waters plants while granddaughter Darinnesha, 2, watches, bought the SW 294th Terrace house for $15,000 after the storm, which destroyed her former home in Leisure City.

Gwendolyn Sherman, 23, watches while daughter Michelle, 7, plays at their SW 294th Terrace home. Sherman remembers jittery, pitch-black nights spent waiting for relief after the hurricane.

George Brown, left, couldn't separate two mahogany trees toppled by the storm. One alive, one nearly dead stand in his yard as a daily reminder of Hurricane Andrew's fury. Widower Charles Wilson, above, recently returned to Homestead from Texas, where he and his wife momoved after Andrew. He keeps this painting, stained with mud and water from the storm, for sentimental reasons.

The storm changed the lives of neighbors on SW 294th Terrace. Some rebuilt; some left for higher ground.