Sadie and Rita

Leslie Chapman-Henderson
FLASH President and CEO

One of the very first storm victims I came across on the ground the morning after Andrew is the reason I am part of the disaster safety movement today. I call her Sadie, but I wouldn’t swear that was her name.

She was about 75 or so years old, dressed in a housecoat and wearing bedroom slippers. She was missing her dentures and had her little dog on a leash. She carried a shopping bag containing what was left of her life. She was dazed, frail, bloodied and very frightened. She was mumbling and apologizing for staying home instead of evacuating because she didn’t want to leave her dog. Her home was completely destroyed, and she was very lucky to survive.

I will never forget her.

Was Sadie emblematic of a shell-shocked community? Absolutely.

Homes were gone, lives were destroyed and fear, discomfort and the anxiety of the unknown set in and set in hard. That was the human toll and it lasted for years. For some, it never passed.

My six-year-old daughter and I relocated to South Florida for the following 18 months so that I could be part of an insurance catastrophe response team where I worked to put our 112,000 affected customers back together.

I knew that we were ready and able to descend with our resources and checks and help make families whole again. Homes, cars, boats, temporary living arrangements, school transfers. We helped with the tangible things and fulfilled our promise, but what I witnessed firsthand told me that it wasn’t enough.

I had seen natural disasters before, but this experience fundamentally changed my outlook. This was different; the scale was overwhelming.

The personal stories brought it home. I worked with Rita, an architect who left Nicaragua after losing her home and all her possessions twice — first to an earthquake in 1972 and then following the 1979 coup.

She came to this country to start over, yet there she was in Kendall having lost everything once again. She hobbled around with a broken foot in her now roofless, “open-air” home in disbelief as she tried to explain to her four-year-old son why his race-car bed couldn’t come to the hotel with him.

We were there with checks and resources, but no amount of money was going to erase the scar on these families and their community. No amount of money was going to eliminate the slow, grinding tail of physical and emotional recovery.

Homes and buildings failed by the thousands; they shouldn’t have.

Building failure after building failure convinced us that something had to change.

Those of us on the ground who were witness to the unending heartache and flimsy buildings coined it as the cycle of “Build — Destroy — Rebuild” that had set into America’s norm and undermined the resiliency of our communities. Our building practices were simply subpar and we allowed it to happen.

We built, nature destroyed and we built again — the same way. Did we expect different results? It sounds like the definition of insanity, but that was the norm and overcoming it was going to be tough.

As a result, I joined a small but mighty group that formed our organization — the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. We set out to Break the Cycle, and our shared epiphany changed my life.

Hurricanes are now international stories. However, in 1992 Hurricane Andrew didn’t bump Woody Allen off of the front page of Greek newspapers.  Tomorrow, FLASH Project Manager Zoe Boyer-LaPointe shares her unique Andrew story from across the pond…

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