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Survivors vividly describe damage 10 years later
Ten years after the massive storm hit South Florida, survivors still recall in vivid detail how they lived through the destruction. Some were trapped out in Biscayne National Park, surrounded by raging waves. Others saw their homes on mainland Florida crumble around them. Despite the difficulties in rebuilding their lives, many stayed in South Florida.
Besides leaving her homeless and jobless, Hurricane Andrew banished Jeanne Curry and her family across the border into Broward County. "We were in exile from August of 1992 until April of '94," Curry now says from her rebuilt home in the Country Walk subdivision in southwest Miami-Dade.
Three weeks before Andrew struck, Curry, 40 at the time, lost her job at Pan American Airways when the company folded. Then she lost her home, shattered by the storm. She, her husband Jim and children Melissa and Michael, 13 and 9 at the time respectively, sought refuge in a townhouse in Davie -- and in counseling.
As Andrew whipped through, the family huddled in a bathroom. "I'll never forget my son asking me, `Mommy, are we gonna die?' " Curry recalls. "We said our prayers very strongly."
After nearly two years, the Currys finally returned to their rebuilt home. The children are thriving and in college. Jeanne Curry found new work. The storm now lives in their memory like a vivid dream.
"When we talk about it now, we talk about it like it was a movie we saw," she says. "We were lucky."
Volunteering for an extra shift put water treatment operator Scott Farmer smack in Hurricane Andrew's path. He reported for work, in a building on the edge of Biscayne Bay, and found himself dodging falling roof sections and busted-in bay doors.
"I just happened to be in a really bad place at a really bad time," he recalls.
Farmer, who has since moved to Pembroke Pines, was in an outlying building when the storm struck. He and a co-worker fled, driving to the larger -- and presumably safer -- maintenance building. Then pebbles that covered the plant's flat roofs took flight like a squall of scattershot.
"It was sandblasting our vehicle," he recalls. "I was afraid the windows were going to blow out at any time."
They found their way to the maintenance building, whose10 massive garage bay doors eventually succumbed to the wind and burst open.
"I'm just sitting there going, `Ai, ai, ai! How in the world did I ever volunteer for this!' " Farmer recalls. "I always thought this plant would survive a nuclear attack."
Farmer and his colleagues huddled in an office as water pooled at their feet. The eye passed, then finally the storm. Farmer returned to his Homestead house to see the front door had blown through the living room and torn a 10-foot hole in the roof.
All the neighborhood's rich foliage was gone. In five years, so was Farmer. He now lives west of Interstate 75.
Dana Rosander was as far away as one could get from Hurricane Andrew's destruction: Alaska, where her husband Toivo was part owner of a gold mine. It took them a week to return to check on the lakeside home they owned in Pinecrest.
"I knew before I left Alaska that nothing would ever be the same," she says. Their beloved home certainly wasn't. A third of the roof's gravel covering was gone. So were some windows. Rain had damaged the interior.
Rosander's experience with the insurance company left her a little bitter. "It took us really three years to get the claim more or less settled," she says. They made temporary repairs.
"Ultimately, we just sold the place," she says. "We couldn't live there any more. Everything was just upside down."
Rosander, 50 at the time, and Toivo, then 76, moved to Malabar, a city of about 25,000 south of Melbourne. But losing the home they loved left a house-sized hole in their hearts.
"It was going to be our final home," Rosander says. "I think about the loss. We have a happy existence, but we lost our best years."
Hurricane Andrew's fury was a blessing in disguise for Milton Hunter, whose Homestead mobile home was destroyed. Displaced, he was forced to leave his native city -- something he says he should have done earlier, but kept putting off.
Hunter, then 32, stayed with his grandmother at her sturdy Homestead house during the storm. Her place suffered only broken windows. His mobile home was torn apart and had he braved the storm there, he might not have lived.
Hunter wasted no time in getting out. "I collected my insurance money and moved up to the north end of the county," he says. "Just pick up and go."
Now in Biscayne Park, a small village-like town in northeast Miami-Dade, Hunter relocated not so much for safety but to escape Andrew's lasting effects.
"I just didn't want to live in the aftermath of that environment," says Hunter, a financial adviser. "Your quality of life changed overnight."
Besides blowing him to a new address, Hurricane Andrew altered Hunter's life in another way. The old hurricane parties have given way to a measured fear.
"I'll always have the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear the wind blowing past the window," he said.
Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist for what was then WTVJ-Ch. 4, talked himself hoarse as he stayed on the air for days, guiding South Floridians through Hurricane Andrew.
In the aftermath of the storm, he became a celebrity, gaining such honors as the 1993 David Brinkley Award for Excellence in Communication and being named grand marshal of Key West's Fantasy Fest parade. In an NBC made-for-TV movie about Andrew, Norcross was the main character, played by Ted Wass.
"My lasting impression of the two years after Andrew was that it was frantically busy," said Norcross, who recalls zipping from interviews to speeches to his job at the television station.
After taking a break from full-time on-air weather duties a few years ago, Norcross today is director of meteorology for WFOR-Ch.4. He also serves as a hurricane consultant for CBS news programs and has dabbled in Internet ventures and with writing a book.
Although Norcross believes government entities are doing a better job in terms of hurricane readiness, he believes more needs to be done to protect people if a storm hits. He proposes, for example, that a public television station could be used to broadcast only evacuation and shelter information while some radio stations could each broadcast information for specific parts of the country.
Alex Muxo, then-city manager of Homestead, got national media attention after Hurricane Andrew tore up his city.
On CNN, Muxo, wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap, cried over the damaged baseball stadium built for the Indians' spring training. Moved, Indians fans sent truckloads of food, water and other aid. The team, however, decided to train elsewhere.
In 1994, Muxo went to work for H. Wayne Huizenga. He was put in charge of planning a sports and entertainment complex along the Broward-Dade county line for Blockbuster Entertainment Corp.
The plans for Blockbuster Park fell apart, but today Muxo is president of Huizenga's Arena Development Co., which built the National Car Rental Center.
Lt. Joe Martyna
Lt. Joe Martyna saved Joe Knowles' life by sheer chance.
Martyna was flying helicopters for what is now known as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, performing search and rescue missions and damage assessment from the air.
Martyna took off early Monday, Aug. 24, 1992, from Opa-locka Airport and headed south to map the southernmost line of the worst hurricane damage. He flew down the coast of Biscayne Bay that morning and raced back over Biscayne National Park in the Atlantic Ocean later that day, as the sun went down.
"This was before night vision goggles, so I wanted to get back before dark," he said.
While flying over the Ragged Keys, about eight miles off the mainland, he saw a private house that appeared severely damaged by Andrew. But that wasn't what caught his interest.
"I saw a phone number written on this piece of cardboard that was three or four feet high," he said. He continued flying north, but the sign puzzled him.
"Why would it be out there?" Martyna wondered.
He turned back for a closer look, and saw Joe Knowles clutching the sign.
Knowles, then in his mid-70s, lived on the tiny island as the caretaker of the house. He didn't evacuate because he thought Andrew wouldn't be too severe.
But with 13-foot ocean swells and winds traveling at the speed of race cars, the two-story house quickly lost its roof, staircase and two entire walls.
Knowles had climbed to the second floor to stay above flooding, crouched in a corner away from the winds. Almost a day later, Martyna spotted him.
"He was a little, frail guy, sunburned as can be," Martyna said.
When the helicopter touched down, Knowles jumped from the second story onto a storage shed and then leaped to the ground.
He had a T-shirt wrapped around his head, covering a bloody cut, but he wasn't in shock.
There has no water, no food, no generator; no one knew Knowles has stayed behind.
"Were you out here all night?" Martyna asked. He wondered what the phone number was for. Knowles nodded.
"You have to call my son and let him know I'm OK, because we had a heck of a storm last night," Knowles said. He wanted to stay at the house.
"You can't stay here," Martyna said.
Knowles looked at his German Shepherd. His Doberman Pinscher puppy had been washed away by the waves.
"I'm not leaving without my dog," Knowles said.
Knowles kept in touch with Martyna for a few years, but the letters eventually stopped.
Attempts by The Associated Press to locate Knowles were unsuccessful.
The day after Andrew passed through, Edward Pollak choked back tears as he told a reporter how he watched his house disappear in the wind.
Ten years later, he still fights back emotions when asked about what he calls "four hours of hell."
Pollak, his wife and two daughters stayed in their house during Andrew, convinced they could ride out the storm.
"We thought we just had to hold the front door shut," he said. The front door was about all that remained of the house's structure.
When the roof was being ripped off, Pollak's wife put a ceramic flower pot over her head to protect herself from falling ceiling beams.
A worker from the Federal Emergency Management Agency later told Pollak that Andrew's wrath looked similar to Hiroshima -- the man served in the Pacific for the U.S. military during World War II.
Fortunately, Pollak had a comprehensive homeowners insurance policy. The retired public-school teacher did not rebuild the house, but he still lives in southern Miami.
When asked what he would do if an Andrew-like hurricane came back, he said: "I'd get the hell out of here."
Becky and Tom Rutledge
Park rangers Becky and Tom Rutledge live with their two daughters on Adams Key in Biscayne National Park. Before Andrew and the birth of their children, the Rutledges rented a federally owned house on the key built in 1920s for Carl Fisher, one of the first developers of Miami Beach.
They evacuated the two-story house on the afternoon before Andrew struck, as they had during previous hurricane warnings. Like before, they just took a few bags of clothing, expecting to return to their house when the storm passed.
This time, when they returned, the house was gone.
Becky and Tom walked around the key, finding some of their clothing, papers and other belongings stuck in the mangrove trees.
When Tom went up in a helicopter a few days later to survey damage to the park, he saw a familiar sight floating near Elliot Key, about half a mile away. It was their refrigerator.
He brought back a few magnets off the fridge to prove it to his wife.
"We still have them on our new fridge, as a reminder," Becky said.
She said their two daughters, now 5 and 8, aren't too afraid of the stories they hear about Andrew, even during frequent summer evacuations.
"They've lived here all their life. They don't know anything else," Becky said.
Otis T. Wallace
"Nobody suspected what was to come," said Florida City Mayor Otis T. Wallace. "No one knew they'd be looking at the storm of the century, including myself."
Wallace, who was also mayor in 1992, spent a sleepless night hunkered down in city hall with about 12 employees coordinating the emergency response.
He divides his Andrew experience into before and after the eye. Before, city hall held up to the strong winds and the mood was anxious but calm. After, "it was like 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
During the eye's relative calm, Wallace and the others went outside to see if people were heading to city hall for shelter. They weren't getting many emergency calls because the phone system was down.
About 30-35 people were on their way to the building.
"These were people whose homes were so destroyed, they couldn't stay there through the whole storm," Wallace said.
They kept the building's main entrance open until the winds began to pick up.
"By that time, you couldn't make out anything passing by, it was going so fast, it wasn't stopping to pose for pictures," Wallace said. "After the eye passed, we started to take a beating in city hall."
Trees, telephone poles, cars and all types of debris smashed into the building. When Andrew finally passed, only 15 percent of the roof was left and some of the walls were giving way
By then, most of Florida City was gone -- the city's seven government buildings, the restaurant where Wallace ate next door and hundreds of houses.
"We took a direct hit, there was not an unharmed street anywhere," Wallace said.
Wallace's house about four blocks from city hall was severely damaged, but his family had evacuated.
When his son Wesley, then 2, got back to Florida City, he told Wallace: "Daddy the house is broke."
"He expected me to fix it, like one of his toys. Well, the next day it was still broken."
Wallace and his family eventually rebuilt the house, and the mayor beams when he speaks about the new city hall, built to withstand 200 mph winds.
Max Mayfield is now director of the National Hurricane Center. Ten years ago, he was a hurricane specialist and a nearly 30-year veteran at the center, which was then in suburban Miami's Coral Gables.
During the hurricane, Mayfield was unable to go home to Kendall, a suburb southwest of Miami, where his wife and three children were.
"The hurricane center owns my soul during an event like that," Mayfield said.
Many in South Florida may remember Mayfield's soothing Oklahoma accent from his hurricane advisories on the airways warning about Andrew's progress.
Judging by the calm of his voice, many may have thought the center was a bunker that even hurricane winds could not damage.
But Mayfield remembers windows shattering even though they were protected by hurricane shutters. Winds gusting up to 164 mph blew the center's radar off the roof, knocking out its ability to produce local images of Andrew's path.
"I said to myself, 'Hmm, that's not supposed to happen!'"
The center escaped serious damage, but it was later moved inland to its current location in western Miami-Dade County.