Hurricane Andrew Destroyed Many Lives

hurricaneIn the early morning hours of August 24, 1992, a wicked hurricane ripped through southern Florida. By lunchtime, 15 people were dead and 250,000 were homeless. Ten years after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, prompting serious regulations, witnesses remember Hurricane Andrew’s scariest moments and the struggles of starting over.

“If Our Marriage Survived This, We Can Get Through Anything.”

Leslie Case, then 27, was relaxing with her husband, Brad, at the family’s Florida Keys beach house when the first warnings about Hurricane Andrew flashed across the TV screen. Together the Cases stored away the deck furniture–“just in case the wind was bad”–and decided to head back to their avocado and lime farm in Homestead, 60 miles away. Leslie, three months pregnant with her first child, was a rookie when it came to hurricanes (originally from California, she had moved to Florida only three years before), but she wasn’t worried. On the mainland, she assumed, she and Brad would be safe.

But once back in Homestead, the Cases found their neighborhood being evacuated. Given little choice, they packed an overnight bag and headed to Brad’s parents’ home nearby.

As night fell, the storm’s severity kept growing. The wind started howling, the lights flickered, then went out, and Leslie began feeling contraction-like pressure in her stomach. Ignoring the teasing from her storm-savvy in-laws, she went and hid in a bedroom.

It wasn’t long before she had company. “We wound up, all five of us, riding out the hurricane in the master bedroom closet,” she laughs now. “Each time the storm blew a window out, Brad and his brother and father would leave to put a mattress against it. That really scared me, because once the guys left the closet, you never knew whether they were coming back.”

Several days later, Leslie and Brad walked to the farm to survey the remains. Neighboring mobile homes, ripped to shreds, were wrapped around the avocado groves; the lush lime trees had simply blown away. Inside their home, everything–from walls to shoes–was covered with thick green mold. The couple had no choice but to demolish the place.

Daughter Kailey was born in March 1993. For the next two years, while working to recover their losses, Leslie and Brad lived in a single room at Brad’s parents’ home, sleeping in twin beds with a crib between them. It took ten years of grueling work, but today the farm is up and running once again. “I look back at what we’ve gone through: a hurricane, two years without a home of our own–it was a nightmare,” Leslie says. “But it changed my priorities. Nice cars now seem like a waste of money; sentimental things have more value. During hard moments, I remind myself that if our marriage could survive Andrew, we can do anything.”

“How Could Kids Attend a School that Looked Like It Was Bombed?”

Twenty-four hours after she sought shelter from the storm in the hallway of her house, principal Yvonne Hinson went out to survey the damage at the school down the street. “I remember watching kids wade by in the water,” says Yvonne, then 44. “But none of them went near the building.”

That’s because R.R. Moton Elementary School–once a haven for children in Miami-Dade County’s worst neighborhood–was no longer operational. The lawn was a swamp. Rows of windows had been blown out. Classrooms were soaked, and the front half of the roof was gone.

“I stood in line at a pay phone for hours, so I could report the damage to the board of education,” Yvonne remembers. “The challenges ahead were daunting. I couldn’t just cancel school for six months. But how could I educate kids in this building? I had no idea what we were going to do.”

Over the next few weeks, Yvonne watched in amazement as the community–and country–rallied in support. Another school doubled up its classes so that Yvonne’s students could have their own space. Donations of clothes, shoes, toiletries, food, toys, and money flowed in from across the United States.

When discussion of new construction began, Yvonne knew this was her moment to change the future for the children of R.R. Moton. Her ambitious plan called for a new state-of-the-art facility, encompassing more grade levels, a 100-seat theater and dance studio, and a full-service health center to provide care for students.

“At this school, we call the storm Saint Andrew,” Yvonne says. “It gave us the opportunity to team up with the community groups and transform the neighborhood.” The attractive new building gave the entire area a face-lift. Young families, eager to send their children to the fancy new facility, moved to nearby streets, turning run-down shanties into cozy homes. Businesses, hoping to attract the middle-class clientele, demolished abandoned stores and built new ones. Classrooms with cutting-edge technology attracted first-rate teachers. Now, R.R. Moton–once on Florida’s failing-schools list for its poor standardized-test scores–has worked its way up to a C-plus rating. This year, Yvonne declares, she’s shooting for an A.

“They Told Me to Go to the Hospital. But I Couldn’t Just Leave Steve.”

Sheri Shiver, seven months pregnant, and her husband, Steve, had just put the finishing touches on their new nursery. The room was decorated in pink, gifts from the baby shower were in place, and a handmade crib awaited its tiny occupant. Reports of a hurricane were all over TV, but Sheri, then 26, wasn’t worried. “We’d get warnings several times a year, but it always hit someplace else,” she says.

Just before the storm came ashore, the predictions grew more severe, and doctors began warning pregnant women to head to their local hospital as a precautionary measure. “To make sure there was room for everybody, they said, `No spouses,'” she says. “But there was no way I was going to be separated from Steve.”

Instead, the couple drove three miles to Sheri’s in-laws’, who had constructed a home reinforced to weather hurricanes. As heavy winds pounded the single-story house, the family huddled under a mattress in a dark, windowless bathroom. Around midnight, they lost power. “Rain was pouring in,” Steve says. “With one flashlight, we were trying to find the leaks and catch the water in a bucket. Then we realized it didn’t matter–water was seeping in through the floor too.”

“I started to pray,” Sheri says. “The walls of the house were solid cinderblock, but you could see them swaying in and out–it looked like they were breathing.” After a night of 145-mph winds, the home Sheri’s father-in-law built was the only one in the neighborhood that still had its roof intact.

A day later, the rain slowly subsided, and the Shivers headed home. “When we pulled up in the driveway, the house looked nearly perfect, minus a few broken doors,” Steve remembers. “Then we went around back. It was gone–the whole back half of our house had blown off.” What the storm hadn’t taken, looters had–the stereo, VCR, and TV were nowhere to be found inside the Shivers’ crippled house.

Sheri spent the final weeks of pregnancy without the creature comforts she’d taken for granted: a home (“We rented a 30-foot trailer–the kind you hook up to your car–and parked it in our driveway”), a change of clothes (“I managed to save one outfit”), and air-conditioning. “Imagine southern Florida in the summer, after that kind of storm,” she says. “Everyone was hot and wet; being nine months pregnant just made it that much more unbearable.”

On October 27, daughter Ashley was born. The following summer the family moved into a new home, and that was just the beginning of many changes. Wanting to play a role in rebuilding the community, Steve, who worked in real estate, decided to run for city council, then mayor. Now he is the manager of Miami-Dade County. “Andrew taught me to appreciate my family, because it could all be gone tomorrow,” Sheri says. “Surviving the storm has brought us closer than ever.”

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