See a full slideshow remembering Hurricane Andrew here. Also read "Hurricane Andrew at 20: Miami Herald Reporters Remember."
In a column published today, I gathered memories of a bunch of ex Miami Herald reporters about covering Hurricane Andrew, which ruined Miami 20 years ago today. The newspaper won a Pulitzer gold medal for its coverage. In this reminiscence, Bill Rose, former Tropic magazine editor and now a visiting professor in Mississippi, recalls the crazy chatter after the storm.
Remember the rumors? The government was hiding the shocking news that Andrew had claimed 1,000 lives in South Dade. National Guardsmen had buried looters in unmarked graves. Dead farmworkers were hidden in Burger King restaurants. Stacks of corpses were secretly shipped out of the county in refrigerated trucks. People were passionately insistent about this. They would fervently argue that they KNEW, they had PROOF, it really HAPPENED. Why, they would demand, is the media hiding the truth?
Finally, Tropic got sick of hearing it. We sicced Mike Wilson on the story. A good, thorough reporter, he collected the rumors and tracked every one of them down.
Here's Rose's memory of that expedition:
He found exactly what we expected. There was absolutely no truth to any of it. Everyone had heard the rumor from someone who knew. Until we found that someone and discovered that they didn't know, either. They just heard it from someone else. We found not a single soul grieving the loss of a loved one whose name was mysteriously omitted from the list of the dead. Where were the grieving widows, the crying children? It was understandable, of course. When we go through a storm that big, that scary, we tend to give it more credit than it deserves. We survived and we want to make what we survived seem as brutal, as evil, as deadly as possible. That's human nature. It was, Dorschner wrote, "like playing a giant game of Telephone.People tried to tell stories accurately, they really did. But the facts kept getting more and more twisted with each telling."
It's a funny thing. Even today, years after Wilson shot hole after hole through all of those stories, even after all of his documentation, I still run into people from Miami-Dade who walk up to me with a knowing look and ask me why the media buried the story. I rant at them, recount all of Wilson's proof, cut holes in their story with searing questions. They look a little sheepish ... for just as long as it takes me to leave them. Then they repeat the stories all over again.
As a writer, a storyteller, I probably should be grateful that so many people are so insistent on telling stories in this age of computer-driven youth who seem to have lost their sense of humor and their ability to have an entertaining conversation. Remember the days when folks were natural storytellers? Well, for a while after Andrew, most of us were storytellers again. It's when it gets out of hand that it causes trouble.
Wilson finally found a rookie cop in Florida City who claimed to have seen "six or seven" dead bodies while on patrol. He figured he would have seen more if he had looked longer. Wilson didn't use his name for a very good reason. As the conversation ended and Wilson prepared to leave him, the officer stopped him and said this, "Hey, tell me something. Is there really such a thing as aliens, man?"
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An earlier version of this story said that John Dorschner, not Mike Wilson, wrote the Hurricane Andrew rumor story. That was a mistake. The story has been corrected.