Here is a fun fact about me — I am a Hurricane Andrew survivor. Today is the 25th anniversary, so my fellow PTSD victims and I are re-living memories of that day and the aftermath. Hurricane Andrew was a compact Category 5 storm that touched down in South Florida less than 10 miles from my home. Taz was 2-years old at the time. At my insistence, we evacuated inland a mere 5 miles, so we got to hunker down in a townhouse with about 18 family members wondering what the heck was going on. Through a skylight I watched a satellite dish turn inside out like an umbrella. That’s when you know shit is getting real.
I have tons of memories both good and bad, but one of my FB friends decided to remember the good, so since I’m a tad grouchy at the end of a challenging day, let’s focus on that.
I remember my neighbors, because we were the only block with quasi-habitable homes, pooling together money so two people could drive up to 60 miles to buy everyone groceries. We didn’t really know many of them until after the storm and then we knew EVERYBODY. I remember having a block party every night so we could share food, propane and most importantly the fellowship of survivorhood. It was actually fun.
I remember getting free medicine from a mobile clinic when Taz got pink-eye from bathing in the lake (God, it was hotter than Hades after the storm — a high pressure system that was unbelievable). Taz didn’t think she was treated by a real doctor because it was a man, a kindly internist who had to ask his nurse the right dosage for a 2-year old. LOL — even at that age she was challenging authority.
I remember, after 10 days of camping at the house, moving in with some old friends and we lived a hippie commune life for a month. We had at any given time 6-10 adults and various kids coming and going. It was a blast. I cried when it was time to return home.
Days before the storm I had given notice at a job and was scheduled to start a new one. Both employers were concerned and offered all types of help and assistance. I felt blessed. My old employer paid me even though I never went back (except to pick up the final check).
My neighbors behind me lost everything. Her contraceptive sponges were inside my house. I found their clothes, pictures — you name it and it had blown into my house. They came by to check out their house and realized it was gone. I handed them a box of their personal effects. The next day I saw them on the side of the road by the shopping center grilling and giving away hot dogs to anyone who stopped.
The local strip joint was up and running in days. They were making money hand over fist even though last call was at 5:00 pm due to a dusk to dawn curfew. Any restaurant or store that was open was making obscene amounts of money — cash money.
The housing developer for the area handed out free food, diapers, water — they were the first aid that arrived. Followed by looters selling stuff from the back of pickup trucks.
I had neighbors that were helpful and on the lookout for any mischief. One of them was an Army staff Sargent we called Rambo. He set up a nightly patrol system complete with passwords, 2-hour shifts and did a weapons check on everybody. I felt safe even though a block away a good friend had his Jacuzzi stolen out of his backyard in broad daylight. Within a week, our security force was INS until the National Guard was mobilized with enough people to handle things. INS was the best — they were badasses and our neighbor worked there. Our street was their #1 priority.
My house was habitable and we had a new roof and windows before Christmas. We were lucky. I had power in a month, cable in two months. The cable folks thought I was nuts when I placed my order to have it turned back on.
It was tough though. My father-in-law had cancer and they lived a couple of blocks from us. My Ex’s siblings packed up their dad and mom and shipped them out of the country for a few months until the dust settled. They lost the house they were renting and the house they had a contract on, so why stay in chaos?
I had insisted that we all evacuate on Sunday (Andrew hit on Monday). My Ex didn’t want to, so I told him to sit in front of the TV for 30 minutes and then decide. I told him regardless that Taz and I were going to stay at his sister’s and I was packing up. He watched and without another word packed up his parents. We grabbed some South American friends that lived a few blocks away. They didn’t want to leave, but we were in a mandatory evacuation zone, so we insisted. As we drove away, the wife exclaimed that they needed to go back because she forgot to turn on the alarm. We laughed hysterically at the time. They had been in the country two weeks. They lost everything and I found their couch cushions in a lake a half mile away a few days later.
We had a neighbor that stayed in his house even though we were supposed to leave. He and his dog rode out the storm until the side of his house fell off. Yes, our neighborhood had houses that lost entire sides — it looked like a giant dollhouse. Ceiling fans, scattered contents and no exterior wall — bizarre. Anyway, when the side of his house disappeared, he made the brilliant decision to make a run for his car. He grabbed the dog, opened the door and saved his own life by clinging to the column of the front stoop. The dog was sucked away by the storm. He spent hours clinging to the stoop. He lived albeit with scratches and cuts all over him. He spent a day or two in the hospital and we never saw him after that.
A friend of mine rented a house a couple of years later in an older, nearby neighborhood. The owner said that during the storm (he was another idiot who didn’t evacuate) he looked out his sliding glass door and realized that the water was 5 feet deep outside the house. How that glass door held up is beyond reason — he retreated to his attic until he lost the roof. Geez, people, evacuate for goodness sakes!
Anyway, I could go on and on about this, but let me mention some of my lessons learned:
- Possessions don’t mean shit. You can always get a new couch or a new house, but you can’t replace photographs/memories/loved ones. Now I grab all my important papers and old photo albums.
- If you are told to evacuate, do it. Don’t hesitate, get the heck out of there as quickly as possible.
- Don’t buy tons of canned foods in a crisis — I lived on crackers and canned fruit with a lovely grilled steak occasionally. It was too damn hot to eat much else. Give me lots of water and a battery-operated fan.
- Focus on the kids — make sure that they feel safe and taken care of. Taz came through with flying colors. We had to stop potty-training because that was asking too much of her. The moment we got back into the house and her old daycare, she was potty-trained — she just needed life to stabilize. It broke my heart during the first week when all she wanted was a Popsicle, but dammit, we figured out how to get her one by the end of the week.
- Have a good hurricane box. Paper plates, trash bags, wet wipes, the list goes on.
- You can live through pretty much anything if you just keep your calm, but sometimes you have to unleash your crazy to get shit done. Example: a couple of months after the Hurricane, we were back in our house but my landline kept going out. Always on a weekend, always when I was alone with Taz while my Ex was working. With his dad so sick, limited communication was not an option. I remember standing in the grocery store on a payphone multiple times until I finally had a meltdown. Meltdowns were common occurrences in our local grocery store, so nobody thought twice about it. Anyway, I burst into hysterical screaming tears with the phone company rep and pleaded my case: hurricane survivor, sick father-in-law, 2-year old, all alone — they had to do something. She put me on hold, got a supervisor and I awoke the next day (Saturday) to the sound of men with pickaxes digging up my underground phone cable. Apparently the salt water from the storm surge corroded all the underground cables. They fixed mine first and then worked their way through the entire neighborhood. I thanked her in my prayers for many nights.
Hurricane Andrew was my first hurricane. I told my Ex that living through one natural disaster was enough. We went to live through many more hurricanes. I’m cautious about them. I have to be inside and preparations are thorough. Now, it’s time to say a prayer of thanks for all my blessings.