20 years later, residents recall how Hurricane Andrew changed lives
Many of the children who survived the powerful Category 5 storm in 1992 were initially traumatized and later developed a newfound respect for Mother Nature. For some, it was the moment they grew up.
The Miami Herald
The children of Hurricane Andrew, now adults, don't talk much about the storm anymore. It's 20 years ago, after all. But dig a little deeper and you'll find an indelible mark on many. A heightened respect for Mother Nature. A clenched stomach during a bad thunderstorm. A little extra vigilance when it comes to disaster preparations.
"You never forget it," says Tom Vick, who was 9 in August 1992, when the Category 5 hurricane that changed everything struck South Miami-Dade County.
With wind speeds later estimated at more than 160 mph, it wiped out communities south of Miami, killing 15 people; dozens more died from injuries stemming from the storm and its aftermath. Adjusted for inflation, the storm was, after Katrina, the second costliest storm in U.S. history.
Most children who were initially traumatized by the disaster recovered fairly quickly, according to Annette La Greca, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Miami and the lead investigator of two studies on children's reactions to Andrew. While many children reported significant stress in the first three months after the hurricane, by the end of the school year, 10 months later, most no longer experienced symptoms. Those numbers had improved even more 42 months after the disaster, the last time La Greca and her colleagues interviewed the children.
"In the long haul, relatively few people, children or adults, go on to develop severe, permanent problems," La Greca added.
Even for the most well-adjusted adult, though, the world after Andrew was altered, a little less certain. For some, it was the moment they grew up.
Tom Vick, 29, a fourth-generation farmer, learned early on to respect the natural world. But from Andrew, he began to understand its sheer power.
"She gives and she takes away," he said, standing in a longan grove in the Redland.
His family lived in a house in the Redland in 1992 but decided to spend the hurricane at his grandfather's home in Princeton. Built in 1923, it had been sturdy enough to weather other fierce hurricanes so Vick's father figured they would be safe.
They were. But his grandfather's house didn't do as well. After the storm, "the only thing left of the house was the table we were under, three walls and comforters holding down the table," he said.
"We could've been killed," he said, shaking his head at the wonder of survival.
Their house was in surprisingly good shape. But his school, Princeton Christian, had been demolished and classes didn't start up again until a month later, when portables were delivered. He hasn't forgotten the lesson Hurricane Andrew taught him.
"Respect," he said. "Respect of nature. That's the biggest lesson."
For others, Andrew taught something different: preparation. Jenny del Campo Bethencourt didn't pay much attention to her parents' harried preparations the night before Andrew struck. She was 17 and slept through the first part of the storm.
But now as an adult, working in her brother's insurance agency, she spends her time telling people to prepare for natural disasters. She has seen the damage they can cause, firsthand.
Recounting how her Redland home was destroyed, she explains to clients how fortunate her parents were to have homeowners' insurance to rebuild. Without it, she's not sure what might have happened to the family.
"Some people listen, but it was so long ago that a lot of them don't pay attention," she said. "They think it'll never happen again."
For those who do listen, she describes how, when the roof tiles began to peel off about 1:30 a.m., she ran to her parents' bedroom — at the same time her two brothers bolted from their own rooms. Within minutes the front door blew open and the sliding glass bedroom door popped.
Shrieking with fear, they ran into the hall, then a bedroom, finally into a closet. Packed "like we were sweaty sardines," Bethencourt began to feel claustrophobic. She gasped for air.
"I've never been so scared in my life," she recalled.
As the last of the roof peeled away, her father shouted out in Spanish, "If we're going to die, at least we're going to die together."
Morning came. The family survived. Only the outside walls of their house remained, though, their furniture wet and mangled, their possessions scattered. But Bethencourt said she never mourned the clothes, toys and other possessions she lost.
"You're so grateful that you're alive that you don't care," she said. "You just buy whatever you need."
But the recovery wasn't as easy as shopping. As the family moved from a relative's house to a cramped apartment, Bethencourt began suffering from blackouts and panic attacks. One day at school, ready to take a quiz, she couldn't remember her name.
Her parents took her to a slew of doctors. Various tests and scans followed.
The conclusion: There was no physical reason for her reactions.
Over time the panic attacks subsided. She began to sleep better. She could concentrate. The family settled back into their rebuilt home. Bethencourt graduated from high school, married, had a son.
She admits that whenever a hurricane threatens South Florida, she grows anxious and checks to make sure her family is prepared: "As a parent, I know now what my own parents must have gone through thinking they couldn't protect us."
For a young Andrew Hagen, the storm sparked a permanent fascination with severe weather. He was 6 when the storm hit and remembers huddling in the hallway with his family listening to meteorologist Bryan Norcross.
For Hagen, the calm voice of the weatherman was his introduction to what would become his career.
The Hagens' Kendall home sustained minimal damage, but Hagen will never forget walking outside their neighborhood to survey the destruction. "I saw the expression on my dad's face and I knew it was bad," he recalls.
The hurricane's ferocity fascinated Hagen. By the time he was 7, he was telling people he wanted to be a weatherman.
During hurricane season, he tacked tracking maps on his bedroom wall and watched The Weather Channel. As a teenager, in the summer of 2001, he eventually scored an internship with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Virginia Key.
"I definitely knew what I wanted to do," he says. "I thought hurricanes were really neat."