Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Looking back

Saturday evening, a phone message at my sister's house was the first hint I had that our return to Miami might be different this time.

Ben and I were wrapping up a week in Portland which my sister and I had spent going through our mom's personal items following her death the previous February. It had been a bittersweet time, filled with both sadness and hilarity, seasoned with nostalgia and hard decisions. Claudia's phone message was something about a hurricane that was headed for Miami - "a bad one" - due to arrive Sunday night just a few hours after our own scheduled arrival.

I wasn't particularly concerned; it had been many, many years since Miami had taken a direct hit - never in the 23 years I had lived there - and most hurricanes tended to wander off course and not be nearly as awful as they were predicted to be. Still, we turned on the weather and watched as the meteorologist briefly mentioned it. We got to bed way too late, but still managed to make our early morning flight with its plane change in Dallas/Ft. Worth.

To our surprise, the flight out of DFW was packed - mostly with news people from everywhere, along with their cameras and other equipment. We were told that it was the last scheduled flight to Miami until after the hurricane danger was over.

It was an uneventful flight. Ben and I talked about our just-completed vacation in Portland, and I worried about the boxes of my mother's memoirs and how they were faring in the baggage compartment. As we approached Miami International, it was a shock to see how empty the expressways were! It had been a long time since I'd seen them without bumper-to-bumper traffic.

My then-husband met our flight, gathered up our luggage, and drove us home through a ghost-town-like city. He stopped to get cash from an ATM, but it had no money in it! People had cleaned out ATMs, grocery stores - wherever they could get cash. Stores were closed and shuttered, and Ed told us that he had put the hurricane shutters on our house. It was becoming real.

After we got home, Ed took Ben with him to his office at the airport to check on his crews and be sure all of the planes were safe. I started laundry and took a much-needed nap.

By the time it struck that night, we were prepared. Jugs of fresh water, all outdoor furniture, hoses, sprinklers, etc., were put away, and we were watching nonstop weather reports on the television.

We went to bed at our usual time, Ben crawling in bed with us because the wind was so loud and scary - not just to him, but to Ed and me, as well. When the power went out, I remember turning over to finally go to sleep, hearing the wind rushing past the house, branches snapping, things flying through the air - and the double front doors blowing open and slamming against the interior walls!

In a flash, we were out of bed and in the entry. There Ed and I spent the next five hours holding the doors shut, bracing ourselves against wind that gave us no rest, while Ben kept our pets and himself safely out of danger's way and periodically brought his dad and me cold drinks. We didn't dare let up our force against the doors - each time we did, they blew open again, once knocking me back about ten feet before I recovered and forced it shut again.

When finally - finally! - the wind died down, we carefully ventured outside to view our neighborhood. Where, just the evening before, had stood lovely homes with mature trees and manicured lawns, we now saw what appeared to be a war-torn neighborhood. Roofs were gone, fences were flattened, trees were either blown completely over with roots exposed, or snapped off completely. Roof shingles were embedded in tree trunks, plywood sheathing lay scattered around the neighborhood, garage doors were unhinged; it truly was a disaster.

We were without power for two full weeks. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas living in a trailer in our front yard, and it was the end of January before we could move back into our house. It was a time to be thankful for so many things - mostly that we were all safe. We lost nothing that couldn't be replaced. We had good insurance, and they paid quickly. We discovered the value of real friends and community.

It was eighteen years ago today that Hurricane Andrew reminded the people of South Florida that nature will have its way, and that we are presumptuous to think we have all the answers. In the years since 1992, the southern US has felt the force of many hurricanes stronger and more costly than Hurricane Andrew. But he was the wake-up call.

In a way, Ben and I both still treasure the memories of that day and the ones that followed. It was hard, but we all pulled together, and there is a good feeling in recalling that. As I've often said, it wasn't the worst thing that happened to me that year - my mother's death was - but it was the event that taught me the most about myself. And that's not a bad thing!