Andrew Plus 30
As I sit here in my dimly lit bedroom/writer’s room/mancave in Lithia, Florida, it is another stifling hot late August morning where the heat seeps through the walls and warms my stocking feet underneath my desk. And even though the temperature outside is “only” 85°F/30°C, the bright subtropical sun and the high amount of humidity in the air make it feel like 96°F/36°C in the shade. If it wasn’t for the invention of air conditioning in the early 1900s, many of the states in the Deep South would be incredibly difficult to live in.
I know this from personal experience; 30 years ago, yesterday, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in my home region of South Florida, destroying over 730,000 houses, apartment buildings, and other structures, leaving 1 million people without power, killing 44 persons, and causing over $25 billion in damage. This made Andrew the costliest hurricane to impact the U.S. until it was surpassed by Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Sandy (2012), Harvey (2017), Irma (2017), Maria (2017), and Ida (2021).
The Long, Hot Summer of Andrew
August 23-24 were hot days, too, and even though the temperature dropped due to the cloud cover from the hurricane – which had arrived in the predawn hours howling like a banshee and tossing items as small as flowerpots and as large as toolsheds around as if they were made of tissue paper or balsa wood, only that they were heavier, more solid, and more dangerous – Andrew passed though South Florida so quickly that once its feeder bands were on the west coast of Florida and the “eye” over the Gulf of Mexico, the sun returned in all its late summer glory – and fury.
At first glance, Andrew left our townhouse mostly unscathed; the only considerable damage we suffered was the loss of Mom’s tool shed and some of its contents. We did not have any structural damage, nor did Andrew rip away half the roof like 2005’s Hurricane Wilma would do 13 years later. We didn’t even have any broken windows, which was a lucky thing because we didn’t even have jalousie windows or plywood to protect them, however imperfectly, from debris kicked up by the storm’s winds.
We even had electricity during the storm’s passage, and at one point in the day, Mom and I believed that we were among the luckiest of South Floridians because Florida Power & Light had been able to keep the power on even as Andrew howled and wreaked its havoc, especially in the southern parts of Miami-Dade County where the eye had made landfall and was speeding – at 18 MPH – toward the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and a second landfall in Louisiana.
So rosy was the situation on the surface, at least in our part of the county, that my half-sister Vicky – who lived a bit more to the south and had lost electricity, showed up with the contents of her fridge so that she could save them from spoiling.
I’m not psychic, but sometimes I do have an eerie sense of intuition, and I cautioned Vicky about not being too optimistic about the situation. (Besides that, our refrigerator was at 90% capacity because Mom had gone to Publix several days before Andrew was even a tropical wave and had gotten enough groceries for about two weeks.)
Things Get Heated
I don’t remember if Vicky and I got into one of our frequent arguments; I did not sleep at all during the 24 hours immediately before Andrew left South Florida, so on the afternoon of the 25th I was tired, stressed, and cranky, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my half-sister – who is prickly and overbearing when she’s at her worst – and I got into a heated debate about whether or not she could cram the contents of her fridge into ours.
I do recall that I thought it was not only an imposition on Vicky’s part, but that even though things looked like East Wind Lake Village had electricity and that the damage in the gated community wasn’t that bad, the situation could change.
As in most situations when Vicky and I were at odds with each other, Mom tried to play “United Nations” and get us to seek a “happy medium” and not escalate the conflict, rather than take sides with either one of her adult children. Normally, her brand of diplomacy bore fruit and Vicky and I would both calm down, or at least try to lower the emotional temperature a bit.
In this case, though, it might have been better had Mom been a bit less conciliatory and applied some logic to the situation, especially because the local news channels were reporting that more neighborhoods were losing power because of downed power lines and FPL needed to shut down the grids in areas that had otherwise suffered little damage from Andrew in order to repair those lines before residents were injured or killed by electricity.
Mom might have been stressed out by Andrew, which was the first serious storm we had experienced in our 20 consecutive years of living in South Florida after we’d returned Stateside from Colombia in 1972. She also had been drinking a few vodkas with tonic water since Andrew made landfall to cope with her fears of losing the townhouse to a hurricane, so her judgment was impaired when she assented to Vicky’s request to let her store at least some of her perishables in our fridge. (To her credit, Mom did say no to Vicky’s suggestion that she could stay with us overnight and have a “hurricane survivors’ party.”)
I may not remember every detail of the afternoon of August 25, 1992, but I can still see in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if it had been yesterday, looking at the digital clock on our Kenmore stove/oven and seeing the time – 4:45 PM – just a few seconds before the fluorescent lights that had been on since the previous night flickered, came back on, then went dark with a soft click!
The air conditioning unit, which had been humming in the background and was therefore something that we simultaneously tuned out and took for granted, went silent.
I stifled the urge to look at Vicky and say, “I told you this was a bad idea.”
Vicky had a wide social circle of friends and co-workers, and the phone lines still worked, so after she made a few phone calls from the kitchen phone – we didn’t have cells at the time – she got a hold of somebody who agreed to let Vicky store her perishables – mostly vegetables for salads, cottage cheese, diet sodas, a few bags of frozen veggies, and the inevitable bottles of wine – in their refrigerator. Before leaving, though, she once again asked Mom if she could stay at our house for a few days in case the power went out. Mom, knowing that this was a recipe for more arguments between Vicky and me, politely said, “No.”
As it turns out, Florida Power & Light sent representatives to the Fountainbleau Park area to distribute flyers advising residents of the various condos in the area that FP&L had – regrettably – shut down the power along certain sections of NW 7th Street (which was also called Fountainbleau Boulevard within the boundaries of the “Park” area) to repair power lines downed by trees knocked down by the hurricane as it passed through the county. It was an inconvenience to its customers, FP&L acknowledged, but the power shut-off would allow workers to fix the damage safely and, hopefully, as quickly as possible.
We would not have electricity restored in our neighborhood for the next two and a half weeks, which to me felt like two months. Most of the refrigerated and frozen items Mom had bought less than a week before went bad within a few days because we couldn’t eat all of it in time, and the two upstairs bedrooms, which were usually comfortable and cool because we had air conditioning most of the time, were unbearably torrid except at night or on rainy days.
So, yeah. I know how oppressive summers can be in Florida when there’s no air conditioning to make life in the subtropics bearable.