What makes a place real?

The first time I ever visited Miami, Florida was in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, which at the time was one of the country’s most destructive hurricanes.  Hurricane Andrew was so destructive that it destroyed approximately 25,000 homes, damaged another 90,000 – 100,000 and caused approximately $26.5 billion in damage.  Insurance companies went bankrupt trying to pay claims after Hurricane Andrew.  At the end of that year’s hurricane season, the name “Andrew” was retired from the list of named Atlantic hurricanes and replaced with “Alex”.


I was in the Army at the time, stationed at Ft. Bragg with the 82nd Airborne Division and we were deployed to provide disaster relief.  I was there for two weeks.  I remember arriving in Florida on that sticky day in August.  The tarmac was blazing hot.  I could almost see the heat rising off the asphalt and it seemed like I was sweating even before I got off the plane.  The sun was so bright, I could hardly see for squinting.


While we were there, we were housed the vehicle bay of a vocational technical school.  Amazingly, it was standing. There was no such thing as a “typical day”.  Our days were spent doing whatever was necessary to serve the residents of Miami-Dade County.  We did everything from unload semi-trucks of donated food, which was delivered almost daily, to provide information on other community services to engage in conversation with people who were trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of the chaos.  We provided bags of food on-site, which would allow people to have a meal that day and maybe for the next couple.

Some days we drove through neighborhoods broadcasting our message through a megaphone in both English and Spanish alerting anyone who hadn’t heard that services were available.  We also distributed large quantities of bottled water.  The city’s drinking water supply had been compromised during the storm, so bottled water was a precious commodity.  I heard “Thank you for being here” so many times during those two weeks.

Stories & damage

We also listened to people’s stories.  They told us about the water – waves that were at least ten feet high, their damaged homes, how they and their families were doing, that they hoped they would find their pets.  After a while, it was the same story told by different people.  Every single person was appreciative of the friendly ear, and I was happy to provide it.


The damage from the storm was beyond comprehension.  The news typically doesn’t do justice to catastrophes, and this was no exception.  When we went through the neighborhoods, I would try to imagine the Miami that I had heard about in the media; an idealized Miami that included a population where everyone owned a convertible, danced the night away at the clubs, and lived on a boat.  I grew up watching “Miami Vice”.


The Miami I saw on my first visit was a tangle of destruction and rubble.  Dade County was flattened.  Everything in the community was waterlogged.  I remember hearing about a rat problem because of flooded sewers.  One person told me about increased incidents of rabies in dogs from rat bites.  What previously had been a house had become a half-wall that consisting of precariously stacked bricks.  Wooden structures became kindling, pieces of wood lying wherever the wind had left it.  More was damaged in Miami than just its infrastructure.  There was also psychological damage; an increased rate of suicide attempts, domestic violence, and in adolescents, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was reported months after the storm.

I still tell people about the first time I went to Miami.  I used to say that I didn’t see the “real” Miami.  However, now I wonder if a place is real for us whenever we are there, and experiencing it in that moment.  Maybe there is no “real” Miami, just like there is no one “real” any other place.  The ordinary people that were helped in their most extraordinary time of need were real and I made a difference.


4 thoughts on “What makes a place real?

  1. Hi Renada! I loved this blog post, there was something very powerful about it! You have probably the best example to show how you were an actual agent of change. That’s very impressive and such a great experience to have. I like that you mentioned listening to the stories of the people you were helping. In this class we have talked a great deal about understanding cultures that aren’t our own. What makes a culture is experiences and it’s great that you were able to have a deeper meaning of what really took place. I would love to have an experience like this. You are also seeing a great sense of community and that’s rare. Great post. I thought your images fit perfectly and I enjoyed how easy to read this post and all of your posts have been. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience and I wish you the best in all of your future endeavors! 🙂

    -Jordan White


  2. Hi Renada,

    Your post for this week is very powerful. The name of the post got my attention. I wanted to see what you had to say. The facts about the hurricane in the first paragraph, followed by a picture, helped to show how devastating hurricane Andrew was to Miami, Florida. Your inclusion of why you were there also made it seem personal and brought me into your narrative.

    The organization of the blog flowed well. I liked the subheadings that created space to think about the pictures and what was happening at the time. I liked how you included your internal process while you were there, imagining what Miami was like before the hurricane. I also liked how you told the stories of the people who experienced the hurricane and their gratitude that you were there to help.

    I think the most powerful part of your blog post was the end, where you talked about reality. You provided the reader with a reality check, Miami was devastated physically but that also included the aftermath of transmittable diseases and psychological damage. Your experience really was real, and you made it real for you readers as well.

    Thank you for the great posting!
    Stefani Blaylock


  3. Hi Renada

    Your blog this week really enforces Rick Steves’ idea that things are more complex than they seem. You brought up that the media portrays Miami to be a specific way, but you saw a “tangle of destruction and rubble”. I think all of the stories that you heard also contributed to the idea that things were more complex than they appeared. Each one of the stories you heard was unique and each person was having their own struggle in order to get back to a “normal” life.
    Your blog this week really focused on the idea of being an agent of change. Your time in the service allowed you to help people and try and bring some change to a ravished area. Every “Thank you” that you received truly reflected the impact you made in those peoples’ lives. Thanks!

    – Josh


  4. Reblogged this on Follow the Detour and commented:

    I wrote this post about my experience with the US Army supporting disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 for a Masters level Travel Writing class that I took in the summer of 2016. It was originally published on along66.wordpress.com. I didn’t realize that it would become relevant so soon. My thoughts are with not only those who I know, but everyone who is evacuating and seeking safety as Irma heads to their state.


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