June 25, 2012

Hurricane Andrew: 20 Years Later

Graphic by Anna Philp
(7 years old)

By Geoffrey Philp

When Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida on August 24, 1992, my family was unprepared for the disaster. Sure, we had heard the warnings, but we had been lulled into a sense of complacency by years of frantic preparation, followed by an anticlimactic shift in the path of the hurricane, and then, nothing. All that work in vain.

And you would have thought that I'd have known better. After all, I grew up with my mother's stories about Hurricane Charlie and still had a lamp and battered Sony transistor radio that she had brought with her from Jamaica.

So, when the warnings began, we didn't pay attention to them. Another day in the tropics. In fact, we almost treated them as a joke. One of my friends when he heard that I was buying bully beef and other canned goods, gave me a bottle of Barbancourt (nice gesture, bad idea) as part of my hurricane preparedness.

We continued with our carefree lives until Hurricane Andrew made landfall in the Bahamas. Now things were getting serious. All of the major home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's ran out of plywood. I scrambled to buy five sheets of 3/4" plywood for $30 each from a guy on the back of a pickup. I installed them myself. Imagine a poet with power tools.

I did a pretty good job on the windows facing the street, but the windows in the back were still exposed. I did what my neighbors did. I covered the windows with duct tape (another bad idea) and barricaded the doors.

All night huddled around the kerosene lamp and transistor radio, my family and I listened to the stories of strangers who were on the verge of losing everything--roofs blown off, flood waters rising. Sometimes while fiddling with the dial, we'd listen to some music, but then we'd return to the somber stories. The stories reminded us of how small we were in the face of such an immense force of nature and yet it reinforced our connections with each other: past, present and future.

The next morning we emerged from the cocoon of our home to witness the destruction. Some of our neighbors had lost their homes. Now the stories were personal. My daughter said, "Dad, you have to write a poem. I'll help you. I'll draw a picture."

After breakfast, we settled down to our tasks. I wrote the poem, "Heirlooms" and my daughter drew a picture that I've kept for all these years. Writing and drawing kept us from being depressed about our post-Andrew discomforts. They were easy distractions from the mayhem in Miami that continued for a few months until life got back to normal. If life in Miami can be considered normal.

Since then, we've replaced the plywood with metal shutters and as part of our emergency plans we have an ample supply of water, candles, canned goods as part of our Disaster Supply Kit. We also pay more attention to the hurricane warnings, for as my daughter used to say to her little brother "Be careful, but not fearful."


Through the garbled signals of a transistor 
radio my mother kept for hurricanes like this,
but never like this,
we scan for the next location of ice, 
water, food, and catch the edge 
of a Caribbean tinged station, 
fragments of a Marley tune,
"No, woman, nuh cry, everything's
gonna be all right," and my son, 
barely nine months, who cut a tooth 
while Andrew gnawed through the Grove,
dances with his mother by the glow 
of a kerosene lamp, preserved 
through airport terminals and garage
sales--and, as the window splintered-- 
the house glittered for a moment 
before the walls fell flat--stood
on the mantle of the fireplace 
we never used.In the midst 
of the rubble these, our only heirlooms, 
bind us against the darkness outside,
all that she could ever give,
all that we could ever pass on 
or possess: this light, this music.


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