Hurricane Andrew at 20: Miami Herald Reporters Remember

Hours after Hurricane Andrew leveled Miami 20 years ago this Friday, the farmland of South Dade's Redland was desolate. No one for miles. No running water. Little electrical power. Few phones.

I slalomed my rusty Chevy pickup down a strip of black asphalt littered with shingles and downed trees. Then, in the middle of the road, there was a washing machine. It had been plucked from a home far away and dropped there whole. I steered to miss it, and my truck suddenly jerked from 30 mph to a dead stop. Bang. I would have been dog meat if it weren't for the seat belt. No cell phones back then. No way to call for help.

I flopped out to find a power line thick as a wrist jammed in the suspension. I stripped off my shirt as insulation, wrapped it around a metal wrench, and touched the cable. No juice. Then I lay down, scorched my back on the pavement, and began tugging. It didn't move. Not a hair.

So I grabbed a tiny pair of pliers and began snipping, one strand at a time. Three hours and a gallon of sweat later, I started her up and hurried to a trailer in Homestead. I was a Miami Herald reporter then, and I typed out the story, barely making deadline on an interview with a guy who had escaped a home that Andrew blew away and then found temporary refuge in another, also demolished by the worst wind.

Amid this week's remembrances of the storm that cost the United States more than $25 billion, claimed 26 lives, and left more than 250,000 people homeless, little has been said of the reporters who covered it. The Herald, then a much larger paper, won a Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for its journalists' coverage.

That storm shaped how the media covered Katrina, 9/11, this year's drought, and myriad other disasters. So I asked some former Herald reporters for their memories.

Ana Menendez (then a Broward reporter, now an author of two novels and two short-story collections): Two days before the storm, I was on rotation in the Hollywood bureau. I had been scheduled to cover some firefighter event, but the editor on duty said, with a trace of contempt, that the Sun-Sentinel had made a big deal about some storm out there, so I should probably head over to Publix instead and see if people were stocking up. At the store, no one I interviewed knew anything about an impending hurricane. Finally, I ran into an elderly man with a shopping cart full of water and canned goods. He knew all about Andrew, was tracking the coordinates, and was taking no chances. Soon we were all going to become that elderly fellow. We just didn't know it.

Marty Merzer (then a senior writer, now a North Florida freelancer and grandpa): As an intensifying Andrew approached, I was tapping away like crazy about the first hurricane to threaten South Florida in decades, when assistant managing editor Ileana Oroza walked by. She stopped for a second, smiled impishly, and said, "As you write, don't even think about the fact that you're writing the story that every Herald reporter has waited to write for the last 30 years."

Marie Dillon (then an assistant state editor, now a Chicago Tribune editorial writer): As the storm approached the Herald building, we couldn't stop ourselves from watching out the windows over the bay, even though everyone kept telling everyone else to stand back from the glass. The water was sometimes churning up so high it washed over the bridge. Once in a while, a lone car would come flying over the bridge, carrying a driver who, I assume, had decided not to try to ride it out on the island after all.

Later, as I settled in on the state desk, I looked across at my boss, John Pancake, and said, "Is this building hurricane-safe?"

He gave me his wry little smile and said, "We don't know."

Lizette Alvarez (then a reporter, now a New York Times Miami bureau chief) and Don Van Natta (then a reporter, now a senior reporter for ESPN the Magazine and Lizette's husband): When Hurricane Andrew hit the coast, we thought the storm had bypassed us altogether. We were at the Comfort Inn in Florida City, one of several cities randomly chosen by editors who hoped to have reporters on the ground when the storm hit. From our rooms, we heard a stream of radio reports of people describing vicious, house-rattling winds from their bathrooms and closets. Every five minutes or so, we would open our motel door, walk out, and feel nothing but stillness and disappointment.

Just as we settled in for a night of boredom, Andrew spun our way, launching us on a game of hide-and-seek that would last all night. The winds hit the Comfort Inn so abruptly we were forced to dash from room to room as the roof flipped off in chunks. We met up with a dozen or so tourists during this race to outrun the motel's demolition. The hotel manager saved all our lives by warning us that the winds would shift after the eye of the storm and we should head for the intact rooms facing north.

Then, at the tail end of the storm, a group of us was trapped in one room. The air pressure outside wouldn't let us open the door. The roof rattled, and the walls started to buckle. We dragged a mattress to the bathroom and tried to shield our heads. One woman started crying. A couple of us kept racing to the door to force it open, but it wouldn't budge. I stepped into the bathtub with several others and we started to pray.

Don and another man pushed up on the bathroom roof with all their brawn. The roof lifted and slammed back down. It did it again and again. The howls were so deafening it was hard to stay calm.

Somebody ran to the door again — and this time it finally opened. By the time we rushed out of the room, it was cracking open.

We waited out the storm a few more hours and then found a German tourist, terrified but unscathed, under a mattress in a room that had been torn to shreds. When the sun finally peeped over the horizon, we stood on an untouched slice of balcony and looked out. Florida City was unrecognizable.

Joe Tanfani (then a reporter, now a Los Angeles Times Washington bureau reporter): I was considered a tiny, dwarfish talent and pretty much stuck in the office after the first day. One thing they had me doing was trying to track down the estimable Dade County mayor, Steve Clark. I wrote this story that pretty much said he was missing in action, and some time later, he chewed me out: "You know what I was doing? I was trying to get the water turned on at the Herald building!"

Ileana Oroza (then an assistant managing editor, now a University of Miami instructor): I spent the night on the floor in my office, and my visiting nephew was with me. I had just managed to fall asleep around 3 or 4 a.m. when the phone rang. It was a journalist from Israel wanting a report on the hurricane. After the storm, we gathered around the copy desk to plan our next move. It was about 8 a.m. when the phone rang. One of the editors answered, and after a few seconds, said in a pleading voice: "Sir, we just had a hurricane." The caller was an annoyed reader asking why his newspaper hadn't been delivered.

Andrew Innerarity (then a staff photographer, now a freelancer): When the storm hit, I was on a three-month leave of absence to backpack Europe. I came back a week after the storm with no idea how serious the whole thing was. The flight from London to MIA landed at night, and on approach, I'll never forget seeing a huge line of emergency vehicles, lights flashing someplace in Southwest Dade.

Once back at work in early September, I headed to Homestead every day for months. At city hall, the smell from the tons of donated clothing, which had been rained on daily, was unreal. The devastation was so thorough I could hardly recognize anything in the region.

I remember an Airborne soldier telling me how trashed the Air Force base was. He said the devastation was so complete that if the military "had attacked the place, the only thing [it] would have done different was crater the runway."

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse

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