We Meant Well

Bruce McCullen is the Senior Vice President for Partner Relations at FLASH.  Bruce learned an important lesson after Andrew that continues to present a challenge to volunteer community to this day.

When Hurricane Andrew made Landfall on August 24, 1992, I was working as an insurance sales manager in Orlando, FL. As a native Floridian and having been through many hurricanes over the years, I knew that it would be bad, but Andrew redefined my definition of bad. Only hours after the destruction occurred, everyone around me was deeply affected by the images of complete devastation. A group of employees began to organize a drive for donations of clothes, blankets, food, toys, toiletries, water, ice and just about anything else we could think of to try to help. We rented the biggest U-Haul truck available and stacked it high with all the goods we could. Three volunteers hopped in the cab and headed off to Homestead to try to help. All of us felt really good about the activity and hoped for the best. What we didn’t know was just how difficult this act of kindness was going to be for the folks on the ground in Homestead to accept and distribute. The confusion and frustration of residents that had been through the horrific events were only compounded by the process of trying to receive and distribute the donated items.

While the supplies were certainly appreciated and eventually made their way to the people that needed them most, the process taught us all a lesson. In large-scale disasters, the best thing you can do is donate money to an organization that can get help to the people affected the fastest. The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross have processes set up and volunteers on the ground to help coordinate and distribute the supplies as needed. In fact, today this practice is widely accepted and used extensively in most disasters. This is just one of the groundbreaking lessons taught by Andrew.

About a month later, I traveled to Homestead on business and will never forget just how the images on television did not nearly convey the depth and breadth of the destruction. As we know now, the rebuilding literally took years and the scars inflicted by Andrew can still be seen if you look close enough. So for all the well-intentioned, generous people who want to clean out the closet or the garage to help victims of disasters, I have a bit of advice. Be generous with your wallet and let the professionals do the rest.

Tomorrow Tim Smail talks about the moment he realized that there was a better way to build safe homes for families at risk for natural disasters…

Knew Nothing about Andrew…Too Much About Woody Allen

Zoe Boyer-LaPointe had little hurricane experience until she witnessed the impact of Andrew from an airplane window returning from Greece.  Here’s a flashback to the days before a global communications system that make every major news event local, no matter where you are.

Most Hurricane Andrew stories come from memories about “where you were” when it struck South Florida. In August of 1992, I was happily sailing around the Greek Islands. Sailing into Poros – the only thought I had was, “where can we get some ice to keep our drinks cold”? We were blissfully unaware of everything going on in the world except the wildfires that were burning up the Greek mountainside.  I didn’t know a thing about Hurricane Andrew but I knew plenty about Woody Allen.

When we returned to Athens, I was able to watch some television and read a newspaper or two. The headline on TV and in the papers was that director Woody Allen was in a relationship 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow. I recall that there seemed to be more attention given to this sordid affair than the wildfires that were burning in the Aegean Islands and the Attica Peninsula. There were no reports of the impending hurricane bearing down on the Florida coast so I knew nothing about Hurricane Andrew.

As my two-week stay in Greece came to an end, we packed up and headed back into Miami to catch our connecting flight to Orlando. As we were approaching Miami, the pilot made an announcement and said that a hurricane had struck South Florida and to look out the windows. The aerial view took my breath away and I remember everyone gasping.  I had never seen anything like it before. I suspect many people on the flight lived in South Florida and I wondered how they must have felt.  Up to that point in my life, I can’t remember even hearing anything about major hurricanes much less experiencing that level of devastation. Growing up in Orlando, the only thing I knew about getting ready for a hurricane was to have a flashlight and a deck of cards on hand so you could have a hurricane party!

When I think back to that trip I have a lot of fond memories.  I realize, for better or worse, I will never be able to disconnect that way again. Cable, email, Twitter, Facebook and cell phones make it impossible.

Tomorrow, Bruce McCullen discusses the pull to help storm victims, how our best intentions may create greater challenges for disaster relief volunteers and the best way we can show our support to those in need…

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…

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…

We’re not as safe as we can be from hurricanes

In recognition of the 20 year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, FLASH authored this op-ed appearing in the Miami Herald. We will resume our Andrew stories tomorrow.

Twenty years ago, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in South Florida in the middle of the night of Aug. 24. When residents from Key Largo to North Miami walked outside their homes the next morning, they gasped at a level of devastation that had never been seen before.

Much has changed since then in Florida and around the nation. We have made great progress in the past 20 years to strengthen our coastal areas against the unstoppable reality of hurricanes. But we cannot become complacent simply because time has allowed memories to fade.

Mitigating the damage of natural disasters and, in some cases, actually preventing damages, is a proven money-saver. A 2005 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that, on average, a dollar spent by FEMA on hazard mitigation saves the nation $4 in future benefits. We believe the savings for property owners are even greater.

There are three fundamental building blocks to improved mitigation:

Read more here

“Dodged a Bullet”?

The national news programs that morning reported that Miami had “dodged a bullet.” That was just the first unsettling parallel to Hurricane Katrina. The national media were in downtown Miami, well away from where Andrew came ashore. They would not simply say: “We don’t know what happened yet.” That practice continues today. It was pervasive and haunting throughout the 2005 hurricane season and again during Hurricanes Ike and Irene. Hurricanes destroy communications infrastructures. It’s best to wait before declaring that bullets were dodged.

The “hurricane zone,” as it came to be called, extended from Homestead and Florida City in the south up to SW 120th Street in the Kendall section of South Dade County. If you were not there to see it, you cannot imagine the dimensions of what happened. The destruction did not just extend as far as you could see, but as far as you could see from a helicopter!

Tomorrow, David Halstead, Former Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management describes the hard work first responders from across the state did in the hours, days and weeks following Andrew…

Andrew Enters the Gulf

Bill Read (Part 2)
Former Director, National Hurricane Center

As Andrew was making landfall in Florida, the three-day forecast track had the hurricane moving westward into the central Gulf. Given the forecast uncertainty existing in 1992, we had to start planning for the potential impact on the upper Texas Coast that Sunday. So the management team went to work and mapped out a timeline for ramping up hurricane operations. This included notifying our emergency management officials in 10 counties along and immediately inland from the coast.

Hard to believe, but just 20 years ago this was no small task – we had no Internet, no cell phones and no email notification. In fact, we did not have the capability to conduct conference calls, so we called a checklist of more 25 key officials one by one. This step was repeated every six hours for the new advisory. A handful of the larger EOCs had the Weather Wire or a third-party feed of NHC/NWS products; most did not. So for each call, we basically read the information and added our interpretation on timing and uncertainty. After Andrew, we successfully argued to add conference call ability to our communications capability.

This was the beginning of the modernized era of the NWS. In my area, plans were to close offices in Galveston, Victoria, Beaumont and Waco and consolidate service under Houston/Galveston. Elected officials were skeptical, particularly in Galveston. As Andrew made landfall on the Louisiana coast, the WSR-88D showed the features in pretty good detail even from 200 miles away. We had a number of local officials observing the landfall from our office, including Galveston County Judge Ray Holbrook, one of the most vocal skeptics. Upon seeing the event unfold, Judge Holbrook simply said: “I now see what you are talking about. It will work fine.”

Tomorrow, Bryan Norcross continues as he describes the morning after Andrew and the challenges a destroyed communication infrastructure had on national media fully understanding the scope of the destruction…


“Get A Mattress”

Bryan Norcross (Part 3)
Hurricane Specialist, The Weather Channel

When it became evident in the early morning hours of August 24, 1992, that people in southern Dade County were going to have to do everything possible to protect themselves in their homes, I remembered the mattress. I had read a book by a guy named L.F. Reardon who wrote about his experiences in the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane; how he put his children in the laundry washtub and covered them with a mattress to protect them. So, I said something like: “Friends, here’s what I want you to do. Get a mattress off the bed and have it ready. When you go to your safe spot, get your family in there, get the mattress over them, and wait this thing out.” It was the smartest thing I have ever said in my life. The stories I have heard from people who spent the storm under a mattress still give me chills.

There came a point at about 3 am that I became a bit concerned for our safety in the studio. As I was sitting on the news set looking at the ceiling and thinking through what would happen if something came through the relatively flimsy roof over our head, another thought occurred to me. “If we move from the news set to a place of safety, people will know we are taking this seriously.”

We set up in the storage area opposite the set and adjacent to the studio, and at 3:30 am we made our move to what came to be called “the bunker.” I’ve heard the story over and over about how that event motivated people to finally take protective action in their homes.

At 4:35 am, we watched the last sweep live on TV as the huge and heavy National Weather Service radar was blown off the roof of the National Hurricane Center. Luckily, we had a backup phone line to the radar in West Palm Beach, so we could still track the storm. Frightened people were calling in as their homes were coming apart. Everyone just wanted to know when it was going to be over.

The storm was moving fast, about 20 mph. So the worst of it was there and gone in about 3½ hours. The first reaction of the people in South Dade was stunned disbelief. When they opened their doors or got out from under their mattresses, they found it impossible to comprehend what had happened to their neighborhoods and lives. They said on air that the fact we had not heard from Homestead, Cutler Ridge and points south was NOT good news.

After cutting a path of destruction across South Florida, Andrew moved into the Gulf of Mexico putting the Texas coast in the path of a possible second landfall.  Bill Read returns tomorrow to describe how the Houston NWS office coordinated and managed this potential crisis in a time before the Internet, email or even conference call technology was widely available…

What Shortens a Baptist Church Service

Trenise Lyons was 10 years old when Andrew headed towards her family in Broward County, FL.  She recounts how she felt getting ready for Hurricane Andrew in those last 24 hours before landfall and how that lingering feeling of being unprepared helped inspire her career in disaster safety communication.

If you’ve ever been to a Baptist church, you know that, in most instances, you plan for it to take up all of your Sunday morning and early afternoon. So imagine my surprise on Sunday, August 23, 1992 when my minister ended service an hour early after only a short sermon. Apparently, there was a hurricane a-comin’ named Andrew and he knew his parishioners would need the day to prepare. While, I was just 11 years old at the time, my minister’s mention of Hurricane Andrew was my first clue that something major was going on…and I lived in Broward County!

Twenty years later, it’s unimaginable that anyone would not know days in advance that a storm of Andrew’s magnitude was headed his or her way. But there we were, on Sunday afternoon, going to the grocery store to grab enough supplies to get my family through whatever Andrew was going to bring. My mother, sister and I spent the evening getting ready at home while my father, a principal, went to make sure his school was okay and then headed back to help board up the church. I remember feeling rushed and ill-prepared, perhaps the reason I am in the business I am in today. I often wonder how better communication about the presence, possible severity of the storm and ongoing preparedness education could have impacted my family differently?

I started my career in public relations working to educate families about the risk for flooding.  Responding in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma let me know that we have come a long way since Andrew but there is still room for progress. Today, I am a project manager at FLASH where I manage the Great Hurricane Blowout, a hurricane preparedness campaign designed to get families ready for hurricane season.  We give families the information my family needed 20 years ago.  I can only hope that through my work there is an 10 year old out there somewhere who knows that his or her family is ready for whatever this hurricane season will bring.

 Monday, Bryan Norcross returns to walk us through Andrew as the storm struck South Florida in the early morning hours of August 24…

Saturday Night Wake Up Call

Bryan Norcross (Part 2)
Hurricane Specialist, The Weather Channel

On Saturday, things started to move quickly. Not only did Andrew become a hurricane, it soon had an eye and was picking up forward speed. Remember, there was no Internet then, so we did all of our communicating by telephone. I raced into the TV station and went on the air at 11 am. We did hour-long blocks of unscheduled programming doing nothing but answering questions from people calling on a special phone line. A Hurricane Watch was issued for the southern half of the east coast of Florida at 5 pm.

By the 11 pm newscast that Saturday night, Andrew was a Category 3 hurricane with 125-mph winds and strengthening. It was getting scary, and we could have stayed on all night. But at 1 am we decided it was time to wrap up the newscast and get ready for whatever was to come.

At the end of the program, I said, “I’m going to go home now and get some sleep and I suggest you do, too. Tomorrow is going to be a very big day in our city and I’m not sure if we’re going to sleep tomorrow night.”

Tomorrow, FLASH Project Manager Trenise Lyons shares her personal story of Andrew and how communication has changed in that last 20 years since the storm…