The First Responders

David Halstead
Former Director, Florida Division of Emergency Management

David Halstead recently retired from the Florida Division of Emergency Management but in 1992 he was the Assistant Fire Chief with the city of Altamonte Springs, FL.  First responders from across the state and the country came to South Florida to help after Andrew.  David offers his thoughts on those days immediately following Andrew as his team assisted in the recovery effort. 

As Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida, our Seminole County emergency management director reached out to the Miami-Dade EOC to offer our assistance. At the time I was an Assistant Fire Chief with the city of Altamonte Springs, and one of my other duties was to serve as that city’s emergency manager. That evening, after the winds had subsided, our caravan of 20 responders including a command vehicle, RV, two command SUV’s and a van proceeded down the interstate for our late night destination at the Miami-Dade EOC. Early the next morning, after a quick briefing from the Miami-Dade staff, we were assigned to the city of Homestead. Half of our personnel and equipment were assigned to staff Fire Station 6 just north of the city, and the rest proceeding down to Homestead City Hall.

As we proceeded south on US 1, we first realized the devastation that had come from this Category 5 storm. Entire shopping malls were missing their roofs, auto dealerships had vehicles thrown around the lot, entire buildings were demolished and left as trash on the road, and a single piece of sheet metal was tightly wrapped around a palm tree as if to put a final definition to the strength of the storm.

As night fell, I remember the eerie darkness with no lights across the entire city, and yet spotlights from Blackhawk helicopters occasionally illuminated a small section. The continued beating of the blades of the choppers permeated the otherwise quiet neighborhood. When we responded with an engine or rescue company, we used their equipment and had a Miami-Dade driver, yet the ability to navigate was greatly hampered by the absence of street signs and standing buildings that normally would have been used as a land marker.

During the next several days, we completed search and rescue within communities where nearly every person was carrying a weapon, but were thankful we were there. My final recollection is of looking at a huge trash pile and thinking it was odd for it to be placed next to subdivisions. Our driver then told us the name of this once intact trailer park that now resembled a trash pile.

Out of this experience, the Florida Fire Chiefs developed a comprehensive way to send mutual aid for fire, rescue and EMS resource throughout the state. It was my involvement in this planning that ultimately landed me in the position to be the State Director of Emergency Management.

The story and impact of Andrew was best understood through of the eyes of the survivors.  Monday, Leslie Chapman-Henderson returns to tell the story of Sadie and thousands more like her that made it abundantly clear that the way we built homes had to change – the status quo was no longer good enough…

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