It is an understatement to say we are experiencing some devastating weather these days. Some say it is global warming. Others say it is part of a natural 15-year cycle in weather events. Still others believe it is God trying to wake up the nation. Whatever you believe, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters appear on the rise. Just consider the following snippet of recent but catastrophic weather events.
In 1998 alone, Hurricane Mitch caused an estimated 11,000 deaths and billions of dollars in damage in Central America; flooding on China’s Yangtze River killed over 3,000 people and left 14 million homeless; Canada suffered from the worst ice storm on record with more than 80 hours of non-stop freezing rain; and ramped forest fires in Florida burned out of control for weeks, destroying businesses, homes and a half million acres of land. Launching forward in time, we all remember the tsunami in South Asia in December of 2004 killing perhaps hundreds of thousands. Now in 2005 there is Katrina – likely the worst natural disaster in American history.
Although this short list of weather events is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of recent natural disasters, every natural disaster is life-changing. It was for me when I experienced Hurricane Andrew.
I was in graduate school at the University of Miami School of Medicine when it hit South Florida. Before that experience, I actually enjoyed thunderstorms. I loved watching the lightening strike and counting until the thunder clapped. (It made me feel like a junior storm tracker when I was a kid.) So growing up in coastal states it was always a thrill to watch storms roll across the oceanfront, rain along different parts of the coastline and watch water funnels as they approached the land and disappeared. That all changed for me after Hurricane Andrew.
By 1992, I had lived in Florida almost a decade. I had seen a few serious storms come and go. But for some reason, Hurricane Andrew held my attention as it developed and crossed the Atlantic into the Caribbean. When the warnings of the storm first aired on local television, they were laughed off or ignored by most everyone I knew. Their collective prediction was that it would veer off into the Atlantic long before hitting the coast.
So it was to the mocking laughter and jeers of my colleagues that I went shopping for hurricane supplies. I bought a turkey to roast, peanut butter, jelly, bread, batteries, flashlight, duct tape, bags of ice, freezer packs and lots and lots of water. I came home, filled my bathtubs with water to flush the toilets and applied duct tape to the sliding glass doors in case they gave in to the wind.
At the time, I was renting an apartment on the inter-coastal right across from the port of Miami. That’s where all the cruise ships and tankers dock. I actually lived on an island called Brickell Key. So when it became clear Andrew was going to hit Miami, we were given a mandatory evacuation. I headed for the medical school with a cooler full of food to take shelter and ride out the storm. Believe me when I say, “No one eating turkey sandwiches was laughing at me that night.”
In many ways it seemed like a typical all-nighter at the lab. Of course, there was a fuller house then usual. Some people tried to work, but most people were glued to the radio and TV. The lights never went out, making it a long night. More than once I ventured out to a small balcony off the stairwell to take a look over the downtown area and up at the threatening sky.
The stairwell balconies were encased in brick and most often used for those taking a cigarette break in between lab experiments or class (not by me, of course). Not really a nice place to hang out, but it provided a reasonably safe place to view the storm.
I remember what struck me most was the sound of the wind. Traveling at speeds that topped 160 mph at times it sounded like a freight train. It was all together unfamiliar and frightening. Back inside, we listened in horror as people living south of the city called into radio stations on their cell phones crying out for help as the storm barreled in and took their homes apart.
The National Weather Service announced that Andrew made landfall at 4:55 a.m. moving at 16 mph. They said the strongest winds “cut across southern Dade like a buzz saw blade.” The worst of it was felt south of the city in Homestead where entire communities were left looking like piles of matchsticks.
After the storm passed, I made my way back to my apartment and discovered mild water damage. I was lucky. But what followed was even more awesome than the storm itself.
The port of Miami became a base of operation to get food, water and medical supplies to the devastated communities to the south. The once bright lights of the city were shrouded at night in a blanket of darkness the likes of which I have never seen (being a city girl and all). The sounds of the city were replaced by the steady blade-turning thump of military helicopters. Miami Dade looked in many ways similar to that of our present coastal South (without the water) – a war zone.
As will be the case for those now in the wake of Katrina, it took months to get electricity back to those who still had a house to live in. People were distraught. Lives were lost, homes destroyed and communities gone. Amid all this most people simply wanted to know how to get to get water and feed their children.
I am grieved for the people along our Gulf Coast. I hope and pray there is an outpouring so great as to rival any emergency response of the past at home or abroad. After all, those affected are our own and they desperately need our help. I encourage you to be as generous as you hope others would be if you were in their shoes. Next time you may be.
In closing, it probably goes without saying that I don’t enjoy thunderstorms much anymore. When the thunder gets too close or the winds blow too strong I actually tremble a bit inside. Sure, I still count between the lightening and thunder but only with anticipation of the storm’s departure. I remember the sights and sounds of Andrew like they happened yesterday. Seeing the devastation of Katrina only brings those memories closer.