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Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Turning Point, by Kait Carson



Twenty-seven years ago today the world stopped in Dade County, Florida. That’s the night Hurricane Andrew blew through.

The newspapers on the morning of August 22nd announced that Andrew had dissipated and was no longer considered a threat. My cat, Pirate, didn’t believe them. He refused to stop sitting on my feet, something he never had done before, but would do several times after. I lived in a toney section of northeastern Dade County, in a so-called luxury high-rise that didn’t have a plumb line in the place. Not trusting my building to be safe, I made arrangements to board Pirate and reserved shelter space for myself—just in case.

Andrew roared back to life on Saturday. Early predictions were for the hurricane to make landfall in my area, and although the prediction was incorrect, the highest wind gust, estimated at 125 mph, did roar down my street. One of my neighbors knocked on the doors of pet owners to invite them to join her at her parents’ house in Country Walk. Pets were not permitted in shelters. Country Walk was new construction and well away from the predicted landfall. The police came next taking the names of the next of kin from those who were not leaving. If you were sheltering in place they advised writing your social security number on your arms in marking pen for easier identification. Nothing too scary there!

A good friend called and invited me, and my cat, to her home. She lived inland, far from the projected storm surge. We shuttered her house and spent the night huddled in her windowless hallway listening to unidentified things bashing the building and the wind howling like a freight train. We were among the lucky. We had both a battery-operated TV and radio. We listened to the reports of Bryan Norcross who became the lifeline for the county—and the National Weather Service after their instruments blew off the roof of their building. We listened as Norcross fielded the phone calls of terrified people asking how to stay safe as the wind blew out windows, doors, and roofs. It was clear that Andrew’s wrath was concentrated in southern, not northern Dade County as predicted, and in the words of Bryan Norcross, “People in Dade County are dying tonight.”

When daylight came, the wind was still raging. It abated at 8 AM. We ventured outside to find my friend’s once white house now green. Covered completely in blown leaves stuck by the moisture of the storm. Powerlines were down, one in her backyard. Power was out and would remain that way for weeks, but for some inexplicable reason, the telephone worked. I got a call out to a friend in Northern Florida who asked me to try to locate a mutual friend who lived in the hard-hit area. The police were able to locate her, and as I thanked them, I asked reflexively if there was anything I could do. The response was “Get your &** down here and help. We need hands.”

As a registered certified first responder, I had been expecting a call, just not one quite so blunt. I met a Florida Highway Patrol trooper at the start of the Florida Turnpike and followed him at his instruction. Much of the trip was accomplished by driving on the swales, shoulders and medians to get around fallen signs. As we got closer to south Dade, I kept thinking it can’t get any worse. It did. At one point I spotted a Home Depot with a banner announcing its grand opening. That seemed comforting. Until I fully rounded the curve and saw the front of the building missing. People were painting their homes with signs that proclaimed their need for help, insurance company names, and requests to contact relatives.

The Trooper took me to a place named Naranja Lakes. I remembered it in better times. It had been a planned retirement community. One of the first in the area. I parked my car, abandoned it really. There was no clear parking area, and I was directed to a group outside a destroyed house. There was word the person who lived there had not evacuated. His was one of the first bodies recovered.

I returned to Naranja Lakes daily, taking food and ice back into the neighborhoods until the law firm I worked for reopened two weeks later. By that time, the troops had arrived and the 82nd Airborne had set up a mobile restaurant and food distribution center in the cleared parking lot. I worked with them until October when the County took over and that particular site closed.  

My neighbor who went to Country Walk? She, and the neighbors and pets who accompanied her, ended up huddled in an attached shed her parents had constructed to store garden equipment. The community of homes was built with substandard materials and construction practices that resulted in the failure of 90% of the residences.

Andrew left Florida and passed over the Gulf making landfall again in Louisiana where it stalled, causing immense damage and loss of life. There will never be another Andrew. The name has been retired.

I’ve been through many hurricanes since Andrew. There was a period in the early 2000s where it seemed we had a hurricane a week. Nothing, not even 2017’s Hurricane Irma, from which we are still recovering, made as deep a mark as Andrew. I’ve fictionalized sitting out the storm in my book Murder in the Multiples where it serves as a catalyst to discovering the murderer. Writing the words transported me back in time to that dark, windy night, each moment frozen in amber.

The calendar date of August 24th will always have a hold on me. It was the date I believed that life can change in an instant. It firmed my resolve to write instead of waiting until I retired. It taught me the importance of living in the moment. And every August 24th I’ve heard the voice of Bryan Norcross in my dreams saying, “People in Dade County are dying tonight.”

Writers and readers, is there a seminal date in your lives? Writers, do you use it in your fiction?

8 comments:

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

August 29, 2005, the day the levees broke in New Orleans. Our son was a Tulane sophomore sitting out the storm with a friend's family in Dallas. I told him to come home to Atlanta and bring anyone who needed a home.

Chaos. Grief. Despair. Paul enrolled at UGA three weeks into the semester. His friends scattered to their home state universities. Tulane announced it would re-open in January and students could come to a campus parking garage to collect their belongings. I was the Atlanta B&B for his friends passing through.

Paul had worked as a house painter, and soon added sheetrocking and laying tile to his skill set. The Tulane soccer team refereed youth soccer games. At his 2008 graduation, his entire class was honored as volunteers in the recovery. They had returned, completed their degrees, and graduated on time.

Grace Topping said...

Excellent blog, Kait, and one that really makes you pause and think. I try to keep emergency supplies in my basement, but I've gotten a bit lax and have let the supplies dwindle a bit. Your message makes me realize I need to restock. I still remember Hurricane Hugo. My cousin had died at age 25 and because of flooding the hurricane caused, few from the family could get to her funeral.

Strange that you should mention August 24 as a date that can change your life forever. August 24 is definitely one of those days for me. My 48-year-old father died unexpectedly of a heart attack on this date. So I got up this morning thinking of him and how this day changed the lives of everyone in my family.

Kait said...

@Margaret, that is so chilling. The events in New Orleans surrounding Katrina were unbelievable. Kudos to Paul and the entire class at Tulane. There efforts were much appreciated.

Kait said...

@Grace I am so sorry that you lost a cousin in Hugo and that you lost your father on the 24th of August. What sad anniversaries. Both are significant turning points.

Yes, restock your emergency supplies. It's so important to have a grab and go bag and to be able to survive in relatively primitive (by modern US standards) conditions for at least three weeks! In my single days a group of us would get together for a restock party on June 1st, then between Thanksgiving and Christmas we would set aside a day to donate what hadn't been used. On good years, that was everything!

KM Rockwood said...

What a harrowing experience.

I grew up on Long Island, and while there was never a devastating hurricane while I was living there, we were always conscious of the possibility. We had emergency supplies, eventually a hand-cranked radio, and a evacuation plan, although looking back on it, I doubt there would have been time to evacuate, given the number of residents & the limited capacity of bridges & ferries (which would have been kept in port as the weather deteriorated.)

Kait said...

@Kathleen. Evacuations are never easy, but the last place you want to be is stuck on the road. Your descriptions reminded me of the dangers of winter storms added into the mix.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Excellent blog … not only did we understand where you were and your reactions, but why you came to prize not putting off the things that you value.

Kait said...

Thanks, Debra! Those were unintended consequences, of course, but valuable ones.