Ballet Ribbons

Leslie Chapman-Henderson (Part One)
FLASH President and CEO

Since 1998, Leslie Chapman-Henderson has led the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)®, the nation’s leading consumer advocate for strengthening homes and safeguarding families from natural and manmade disasters.  Leslie’s Hurricane Andrew story marks the beginning of the path that led to her becoming one of the most recognized leaders of the disaster safety movement. 

Audrey, in her ballet outfit and slippers taken in our new home in Aventura where we moved in September 1992 to live for the 18 months following Hurricane Andrew.

I spent the week before Hurricane Andrew in 1992 focused on a lot of “firsts.” Our daughter, Audrey, was headed to the first grade. She was starting her first ballet class and, for the first time, I was part of a traveling catastrophe response team that would be called up should the swirling mass off the coast of Africa become a hurricane and make landfall in the Florida Peninsula.

I stitched straps onto Audrey’s first pair of ballet slippers as I watched nonstop Weather Channel. It wasn’t the fancy version we have today with my friend, Jim Cantore, on location in the eye of the storm before, during and after. It was blue screen with white lettering that only the geeks like me were following to figure out where our job would take us.

Back home, as we headed into the weekend, we collected our new gear. It was a colorful Little Mermaid backpack, Sesame Street lunch box and sharpened pencils for Audrey; and a brick-sized cell phone, clipboard and camera for me. Both of us packed up.

The thought of missing her first day of school started to gnaw at me as it became clear that Andrew wouldn’t veer away from land. It seemed likely that Florida wasn’t going to dodge the bullet as we had so many times before.

I made contingency arrangements for Audrey’s transport to and from Lake Sybelia Elementary School should I be deployed away from home. Her father and my parents assured me they could handle the task. After all, we were planning for 10 days, if that many. Or so we thought.

Over the days, I dialed into a series of conference calls with my colleagues from out of state to finalize rendezvous, lodging, airport pick-ups, etc. Linking up on three-way or multi-line calls was a nifty, new way to connect. It felt so military that it reminded me of my time living overseas working for the Air Force as a civilian.

Our plans came together. We were to meet at the Orlando airport and head south on the Florida turnpike. The state had invoked reverse laning to allow for evacuation traffic to flow north, but we’d have one lane largely to ourselves as we were some of the few headed into the anticipated strike zone. Once there, we’d connect with our local managers who knew the area and would serve as our guides so we could perform damage assessment and report back to company headquarters in Chicago.

We’d picked up a passenger too. A wire news service reporter would travel with us to cover our response story close up. Today, we’d say he was “imbedded.” We chose a hotel in South Broward County to get close enough, but not too close, to the expected landfall. I doubled up with my colleague, Kathleen, who found it hard to sleep and became increasingly terrified throughout the night as we watched the wobbling and uncertain destination of the storm. At one point, the hurricane looked like it might hit right where we were. It didn’t.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. Between Kathleen’s excited pacing, continuous calls for updates from the imbedded reporter next door, and the live updates on CNN, there was no hope for rest.

That experience was another first; the first (and last) time that I hunkered down so close to a hurricane landfall. Pretty stupid. And it was certainly the first (but not the last) time that I wondered if a career in disaster prevention and education was more mom-friendly than one on the frontline in disaster response.

Photo-caption: Audrey, in her ballet outfit and slippers taken in our new home in Aventura where we moved in September 1992 to live for the 18 months following Hurricane Andrew.

Tomorrow, Bryan Norcross, Hurricane Specialist from the Weather Channel reflects on the Friday before Andrew struck and first clues he saw in the forecast track that made him “raise the red flag” at his news station and alert the people of South Florida that Andrew could be a serious threat…

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