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.