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What it feels like… to survive a hurricane

On 23 August 1992, I was 14 years old and living in Homestead, Florida.

Everything in my life was sunshine and ocean breeze. I had a great family, wonderful friends, and my most momentous life problem was choosing which cassette single to buy at the music store.

I had recently graduated from my elementary school where I had spent eight years with my 19 best friends. I was getting ready for high school and my new school uniform was due to arrive any day. My mom had just redecorated my bedroom as a joint graduation and birthday gift.

I was oblivious to struggle, pain and my own mortality. But within 24 hours, that all changed.

Growing up in Homestead, storms were just a part of the territory. A tonne of rain, some ocean breeze, and a whole bunch of blazing hot heat.

That morning I woke up to the sun on my face and the rambling of a forecast in my ears. There was a warning on the local TV news, which included words like, ‘extreme winds, flooding, structural damage, casualties, prepare. Hurricane Andrew’.  

I knew there was a hurricane somewhere over the Atlantic. It wasn’t supposed to be much of anything. Forecasters scurried to predict its course. Some meteorologists feared Miami would take the greatest hit, others worried Key West was going to take the brunt. But no one thought Homestead – about 30 miles south of the former and 127 miles north of the latter – would be impacted.

My family knew we would probably get some wind, maybe a window might break, but nothing too terrible. Our area hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in nearly 30 years. We were all used to the drill of the possible threat, and a day or two later, the always reliable shift in course. 

No one knew what actual landfall might mean or what a category 5 hurricane packing 165 mph winds might feel like. At around 10am, police cars drove through our neighbourhood. They were making an announcement on their loudspeaker, telling us to evacuate. 

My family was willing to leave our home, but not our town. Just a couple of miles down the road, we owned a modest 110 room hotel. The property included a 6ft deep inground pool, a restaurant/lounge, and was walking distance to our town’s bowling alley.  

Before we left for the hotel, my mom insisted that she wanted to come home to a clean house. So my two siblings and I leisurely finished our regular household chores and then helped with a few hurricane ones like putting masking tape on all the windows. It was intended to help us pick up the glass pieces if one window were to break. 

When we left our house that night, I didn’t look back. I just assumed it would all be there in the morning. I now wish I had taken a moment and held back an extra second.

The wind began picking up around 10pm. I recall seeing the palm trees being pummelled by a constant and unrelenting wind.

The windows on our second floor hotel room were beginning to shake and the wind was growling. My mom decided our room was no longer the safest space for us. We grabbed our things and moved to the ground floor restaurant/lounge. My uncle was there. So was our front desk clerk. But it was mostly just our family. At that point it still felt like this could be just like any other Florida storm. It would have some rough spots, but it would blow over. I was very wrong.

We made makeshift beds out of deck chairs from the pool. I tried to sleep, so I would miss all the things happening around me. Sleep meant I would drift off and wake up to everything being safe and as it should be. 

But none of us slept that night. There were too many sounds. The continuous growl of the wind, the twisting of metal marquee signs, the loud rip of roofs being torn away, the exploding of electrical transformers, the snapping of utility poles. There was a small leak from the roof that I was convinced would grow and would wash us all away.  

The storm had shifted course like we had all expected, but it had shifted right over our heads.  

Homestead was in the centre of the most horrific hurricane to make landfall in recent memory.

The sounds and the darkness went on for what felt like days, but was really only a few hours. The noise grew silent for a small bit of time as the eye of the storm circled above us. We had faced the front line winds, now was the calm before the back winds made landfall.  

My dad and uncle roamed the property to check on their hotel guests.

They found decimated rooms, and people hiding in bathtubs under mattresses in an effort to stop the suction pulling them away. We evacuated every guest and had them join us in the restaurant.

Hurricane Andrew made landfall at 5am and lasted approximately three hours. We rode out the remainder of the storm with a full hotel’s worth of strangers – about 100 or more people – by our side. For the first time in my life I saw adults buckle under pressure, and others rise to the occasion. I yelled at a woman who was clinging to the cage of her pet parrot screaming for Jesus to help us. I told her that Jesus couldn’t help us now.

There was nothing anyone could do for us.  

When the storm finally ended, the sky was clear and the sun was shining like nothing ever happened. 

But the world around me was in ruins. Everything that used to tower above me was on the ground. Everything that was so familiar was so unrecognisable that we got lost trying to make our way home.

It was all destroyed. 

Yet in spite of the destruction, I remember thinking it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The sounds and my fear made me think there might be something worse than total devastation. I am not sure what could have been worse, but the fact that there was even rubble surprised me. Maybe I was expecting a world of nothing.

There were 44 fatalities in Florida, and 65 fatalities in total. There is a rumour there were more.

Homestead was a farming community and many locals feared that many undocumented workers were killed during the storm, but were not included in the fatality numbers.

According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Andrew cost an estimated 26billion dollars in damage. Up until Hurricane Katrina, Andrew was the most expensive natural disaster in US history. Many jobs were temporarily or permanently lost.

When I saw my house, the doors had been blown wide open. The walls were still standing, but everything inside looked as if it had been tossed about or stomped on by a giant. There was glass everywhere – evidently our masking tape efforts weren’t enough for Andrew.

Everything was wet from the water exposure. There was a tree in the middle of my mother’s closet. My new bedroom was just a memory. The beautiful wallpaper was already peeling off the wall. My favourite books were surprisingly still on my bookshelf, but were wet and beginning to mould.

I changed that day. I wasn’t a child any more, but wasn’t fully grown yet either. When my parents said we were leaving town while the house was rebuilt, I cried.

In my child’s mind I was going to miss the delivery of my new school uniform and subsequently my first day of school. I didn’t believe them when they told me there wouldn’t be school for a while.

My parents were right. It did not start on schedule that year. Everything took time. It took eight months for our house to be rebuilt and it took decades before Homestead ever looked the same again. I am still waiting for a time where I don’t shudder during a windstorm.

While the storm took so much from me, it also gave me a huge gift.

Now, things are just things to me. They can be replaced. Whenever I think I am having a rough day, I know that someone else is having far worse, and I try to buck up.  

I have an appreciation for the power of mother nature, and a disdain of what that power can do. I don’t hold grudges because you never know when or if you will see someone again.  

I like to think that I would have found these gifts without Hurricane Andrew, but that’s not something I will ever know for sure. Andrew did happen, and he changed me. Losing our home and our sense of stability was difficult, but that wasn’t the hardest part. 

The hardest part is the feeling of being cheated. Of being robbed of memories and experiences that never had the chance to occur. Of losing out on a life, that up to that point, seemed so possible.

I physically survived that day, but all of us still have a wound that won’t ever fully heal. That’s part of being a survivor.

In this exciting new series from Metro.co.uk, What It Feels Like… not only shares one person’s moving story, but also the details and emotions entwined within it, to allow readers a true insight into their life changing experience.

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