Friday, August 24, 2012
Into the Maelstrom: 20 Years Later
20 years ago this morning, a good portion of South Florida was in ruins. That's because overnight 20 years ago, on this day, Hurricane Andrew cut an almost incomprehensible path of destruction across the suburbs of my hometown of Miami. It killed 65 people and became the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history (a title it held until Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005). It remains one of only a handful of Category 5 storms to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin. At the time, I was an associate producer at WSVN in Miami. I was 22 years old and had only been in television news for six months. Andrew was my first big story. What follows is a lengthy piece, but it's one that generates an overwhelming amount of positive reaction from readers each time I republish it on the anniversary of Andrew. This time is special, though. This day marks two decades.
"There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm."
-- Willa Cather
Part 1: The Gathering Storm
The first order of business was to find some appropriate music.
This sort of task is harder than you might think. I mean, really, what qualifies as a fitting soundtrack to impending catastrophe? It has to be menacing and ominous, yet atmospheric -- creating an almost nouvelle vague-ish feeling of resigned serenity. It has to say, "In less than 24 hours, your entire hometown will be wiped off the face of the Earth by the wrath of God, and there isn't a damn thing you can do to stop it."
I settled on Ministry's So What and Scarecrow -- on repeat.
It was actually a rather fitting choice, given that I was still nursing a brutal hangover from the previous day's Lollapalooza festival -- the one which featured the spectacular lineup of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, yes, Ministry. A full day's worth of drinking compounded by the sweltering and oppressive August heat should've been enough to lay me out flat for the next day or so, but what I'd found waiting for me on my answering machine when I got home at around midnight let me know in short order that I'd be afforded no such luxury.
My assistant news director had left seven messages -- all slight variations on the where-the-hell-are-you theme.
When I picked up the phone and called him back, sitting down in an effort to steady the room, it sounded as if I had just been connected to the information kiosk in the center of Grand Central Station.
"What the fuck is going on there, Mike?"
"Jesus, Chez, haven't you turned on the TV lately?"
"No, I've been at Lollapalooza all day. I told you that's where I'd be when I left work on Friday." I pried myself up from the couch and shuffled across the hardwood floor of my living room, careful not to fall over face-first. "See, this is why I need a pager."
"You have to get in here now. Everybody has to come in," he said over the confusing din in the background. I could practically hear his face turning purple.
I hit the button on the TV and the picture coalesced into sharp focus just as the word "why?" came out of my mouth.
Before Mike could even answer -- "Forget it. I see why," I said, stunned into a near whisper.
I took a step back in an effort to truly grasp the magnitude of the image before me, the one which seemed as if it had the potential to burst free of the two-dimensional confines of my television screen and begin drawing all fragile reality into its vortex.
It was a storm -- an infrared image, all furious reds and oranges, of a massive hurricane sitting directly off our coast. It looked like a buzzsaw, threatening to cut Florida in half. This was Andrew.
"I thought it was supposed to miss us," I said.
"It was," Mike said. "Not anymore."
"What happened?" When I left work on Friday evening, the storm had barely reached hurricane strength again after being sheared into pieces by a blast of vertical winds.
"It turned earlier today, and gained strength. It's now a Cat-5," he said, then -- "It'll be directly on top of us in less than 36 hours."
There wasn't a force in the universe steady enough to keep my reality from shifting on its axis. Still, I instinctively started pacing the floor, trying to knead the remaining fog out of the front of my head with my free hand.
"Alright, listen -- I need at least a few hours of sleep, Mike. I've been out drinking all day, for God's sake. I'll be in as soon as I can."
"Okay, just make it ASAP, please -- and whatever you need to pack up or secure at home, do it before you leave. Once you're here, you're not going back out to the beach until this thing's done with us."
Mike Dreaden was aware that I had moved into my own place on South Beach within the past month; it was my first time living alone.
Great fucking timing.
"Yeah, right, if there's a beach left," I said, then dropped the phone into the cradle and my weight back onto the couch with a dull thump, letting everything swirl into its own pinpoint vortex until all that was left was comforting black.
By the next morning, I had moved the few valuables I owned into a tight space at the top of the closet, packed an overnight bag, then took one last, sad look around the new apartment that I fully expected to never see again and headed off to work. I had little doubt that by the time I emerged from the nearly windowless, concrete enclosure of the WSVN studios the following day, South Florida -- whatever was left of it -- would be a very different place.
As I put the car in drive, the Ministry, for all of its portentous rage, was actually somewhat reassuring.
It was just a little after sunrise when I threw the 1988 Porsche 944 Turbo I had recently bought to reward myself for no longer working at Taco Bell into high gear, only to come around a corner and suddenly face a column of cars at a dead stop, resting bumper to bumper along what seemed to be the entire length of the MacArthur Causeway leading off the beach to the mainland. I had already done my best to avoid allowing myself to be distracted by the unnerving sight of people running from their apartments along the surface streets of South Beach -- their arms loaded with belongings -- ready to jump into waiting cars that would take them somewhere. Anywhere but here. This sight, however -- the sight of so many people desperate to get out of the path of the oncoming storm, opened a painful pit in the bottom of my stomach.
I took a deep breath and whipped the car around, downshifting and slamming the gas pedal to the floor, deciding not to actually leave the beach but instead to travel north along the ocean until I reached the bridge that would take me to North Bay Village, a quiet little island right across the bay from Miami proper and the home of WSVN. I sped along Collins Avenue, weaving through traffic and silently thanking Al Jourgensen for being born.
One of the most surreal and ironically foreboding features of an oncoming hurricane is the near-perfect weather that it creates before it strikes. The pressure of the storm's powerful revolution seems to pull all surrounding clouds in toward its center, making for crystal blue skies in the hours leading up to its arrival -- the literal calm before the storm. With the exception of a very light breeze, you'd never suspect that a monster storm, packing 160 mile-an-hour winds, was about to descend on you.
This is what it was like on the morning of August 23rd, 1992. It appeared to be the beginning of a hot, but otherwise gorgeous day.
It was only the palpable unease in the air and the oddly silent march to higher ground that betrayed the fact that something terrible was about to happen.
When I got to the station, I pulled my car into the most protected area of the parking lot I could find, in the crux of the large, L-shaped three-story concrete building.
Once inside, I was quickly put to work pulling booth duty, backing-up a rotating roster of producers, each of whom did a four-hour control room shift directing our non-stop coverage. We had every crew possible in the field and the chopper in the air over the parking lot that the causeways and I-95 had turned into. I've come to believe that if you're not out doing live shots, the control room is the only place for a producer to be during rolling coverage. Anything else is a waste of his or her talents. I learned this that day at WSVN and would eventually put it into practice in every other shop at which I wound up working. My record is 14 straight hours in the control room and during breaking news I wouldn't want it any other way.
On the day before Andrew came ashore, I willingly spent seven hours in the control room alongside the producers and directors, and in doing so earned the respect of my co-workers and managers. I had only been moved to the dayside shift -- the land of the living, as opposed to graveyard duty -- two months previously, and in a matter of a half-day, I was positioning myself to vault quickly up the ranks.
I had run to the bathroom and was on my way back to the booth when I heard someone call my name; I turned to see the familiar face of Chris Crane, the station's in-house music composer.
"I need a ride to my apartment," he said. "I gotta get my cat. Can you give me a lift?"
"I'm pulling booth duty, man."
"Yeah, I know. I talked to Dreaden, he'll take over for a few minutes."
I'd been to Chris's apartment before; he lived on one of the upper-floors of a gorgeous high-rise building right on the island -- not far from the station. I checked my watch; it was just after five. I hadn't been outside since my arrival early this morning and was curious to see for myself if conditions had noticeably deteriorated, plus I didn't want to be in any way responsible for the death of a cat, so I nodded and we headed for the door.
"Ministry -- fucking perfect," he said as I cranked the engine and the Porsche's speakers came to life.
It was there, in Chris's apartment high above the bay, that the true gravity of what was about to happen -- what was about to hit us -- became overwhelmingly clear.
As Chris called out for his cat, I walked slowly across the living room to the sliding glass doors that led to the balcony outside. Without thinking, seemingly hypnotized, I slid the door open and stepped out onto the balcony; I needed not only to see but to feel the ominous scene that was presented to us from this high up. The edge of the Earth was dark. It looked as if God himself had reached down and pummeled it with his fist -- making the horizon bruised and swollen. The wind had picked up, and as I closed my eyes and felt it wash over me, I realized that the only sound I could hear was the breeze itself.
I opened my eyes and looked down at the streets below.
There wasn't a car in sight.
The island was a ghost town.
And there, at the vanishing point, on a collision course with us, was a storm the likes of which almost no one in South Florida had ever seen.
I walked quickly back inside and slid the door closed. There in the darkened living room was Chris.
"You find your cat?"
"Good, grab her and let's go. We need to get out of here -- now."
When I was nine-years-old, Hurricane David dealt a glancing blow to Miami. I remember my parents boarded up the entire house so that it was pitch black inside except for the few battery-powered lights we chose to keep running. I listened to the storm batter and beat the outside of our home for hours and hours; heard the boards nailed across the windows creak; listened to the storm try to get inside wherever it could. At the time, I drew comparisons in my child's mind to the scene in Close Encounters where the aliens surround Gillian Guiler's house in rural Indiana, submerging it in light and sound in an effort to get to little Barry. I imagined that Hurricane David was trying to do the same thing -- testing every possible entrance in an effort to take me and my family away.
This was at the forefront of my mind as Chris and I slammed the car doors shut and ran back inside the safety of the station just as the first of the heavy, low clouds began to pass over our heads.
As the glass doors of the lobby closed behind us, a steel shutter fell down behind it, locking into place.
Now, just like during David, I was inside a building which had ostensibly been sealed shut.
I got back into the newsroom just in time to overhear Mike Dreaden and the executive producers quietly lamenting over a recent and unfortunate turn of events. WSVN had within the last couple of months fired its long-time meteorologist Bob Soper and had yet to find a replacement of his caliber. It basically meant that for the biggest storm in anyone's memory, our weather department was being manned by a bunch of relative novices -- pretty faces who were at the very least untested in the South Florida market, and therefore would probably be deemed untrustworthy by audiences when it really counted, like, oh say, now.
We needed meteorologists; we had Jillian Warry, who would eventually go on to become Jillian Barberie, FOX's full-time, half-naked, mildly irritating but overall very nice weather vixen.
This was my first experience attempting to work my way around a truly stupid and short-sighted management decision.
It damn sure wouldn't be the last.
After getting a slice of pizza -- because the one thing that can always be said about a newsroom during a crisis is that at least there's free food -- I dodged the chaotic foot traffic in the newsroom and made my way over to the incoming feed area where Abby was sitting down, watching video come in from the trucks in the field. She was wearing her usual ensemble -- a t-shirt and a pair of jeans -- and her auburn hair was tied up in a pony-tail that bounced every time she barked orders through the microphone to our crews. She was as adorable at that moment as she had been a couple of weeks previously, when a few too many drinks at the bar across the street had led to a dangerous level of flirting and teasing between the two of us.
I liked Abby and as far as I was concerned I could stand a friendly face.
"Don't you dare get near me unless you have an extra slice of pizza," she said without taking her focus away from the monitors in front of her.
"You want one? I can get you one."
"Fuck it." She turned to face me, seemingly annoyed at the distraction -- or maybe that she didn't have time to be distracted. "Just give me a bite of yours."
"Always." I smiled, holding the slice to her mouth.
"Don't start with me right now. In case you can't tell, some of us actually work around here as opposed to just kissing ass."
"I'm hoping to sleep my way to the middle. Busy later?"
She took a bite, dripping cheese on her chin which she quickly grabbed with her fingers and shoveled into her mouth.
"My God I love you," I deadpanned.
As the sun went down, the wind picked up and the approaching storm intensified, the pressure dropping considerably. Andrew had become so tightly packed that it now resembled a giant tornado more than a hurricane. This was not going to be pretty, and deep down we were all scared beyond words. All day and afternoon, members of our staff had been running to and from their homes, trying desperately to secure what they could -- trying to get their families to safety. Many brought their husbands and wives -- their sons and daughters -- back to the station, as it seemed like the safest place possible given the circumstances.
In truth, this would have been the case were it not for one obvious consideration -- the one that was about to plunge what had already been a hectic and scary night into utterly terrifying confusion.
We were keeping one door open and that was the back door that led from the newsroom out onto the helipad, and beyond that, the bay. After another hour or so in the control room, I once again felt like I needed to see what was happening for myself. Our crews were reporting intermittent bands of strong winds and light rain -- the outer rings of the storm -- so I ran downstairs from the booth and pushed open the unlocked back door. Outside I found some of our ENG guys gathering sandbags which they were preparing to put in place around what was obviously a weak spot in our defenses, namely the door I'd just come through. The wind was howling now, pushing a mist of salty bay water up over the seawall some fifty yards or so away from us.
Without taking my eyes away from the sight of the now black and roiling bay, I asked the obvious.
"Guys, what's the storm surge supposed to be with this thing?"
"12 to 18 feet," one of them answered.
I remember closing my eyes as I asked the even more obvious follow-up.
"And how high off the bay are we?"
"Not high enough."
As if timed for maximum dramatic effect, it was then that I noticed the red and blue lights casting long, deep shadows from the side of the building and heard the shouts from inside the newsroom.
The police had arrived.
They were forcing everyone out.
"This is a mandatory evacuation!" I heard, from a voice I didn't recognize.
The entire newsroom was in a state of pandemonium. Mike Dreaden and the other managers were trying to explain to the police that we had to continue broadcasting; the police weren't impressed, concerning themselves instead with only one unassailable truth: We were sitting on an island that was likely going to be completely underwater in a few hours. The dilemma for those of us who were currently holding the fort however was equally alarming: Andrew was now right offshore and we were being told to take to the streets and forage for sufficient shelter.
"Mike, what the hell are we doing?" I shouted over the insanity.
He looked around, as if willing himself to come up with a solution that didn't involve everyone being killed. "I have no idea," he huffed, then -- "We'll pack up the remaining trucks and go north to the transmitter. It's in Broward, we can broadcast from there. You can go with us -- or you can go inland and look for a safe place to spend the night."
Neither option was particularly appealing.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Abby. As I might've expected, she looked like she was about to try punching one of the cops in the face, which admittedly would've at least landed her in a nice, safe jail cell on the mainland. I ran over to break up what was already turning into what the hippies used to call a "very bad scene."
"Abby, Abby -- knock it off." I put my hand on her shoulder and spun her toward me.
"Where are we supposed to go?" Up close, I realized that she looked less angry than she did genuinely in shock, like a frightened child.
"I don't know. Where do you live?"
"With my mother." I almost forgot that Abby had only turned 21 a few weeks ago. "Up on North Beach."
"Alright, that's not gonna work. We have to go inland. Come on."
And with that, I did something ridiculously impetuous -- or wonderfully noble -- or maybe I was just improvising. I grabbed Abby's purse, latched onto her hand, and we pushed our way through the crush of people moving toward the door and the police who were edging them out. When we got outside into light rain which was now being whipped along by heavy winds, we ran for the car.
I was fishtailing out onto the empty causeway in a matter of seconds, heading as far away from the water as I could get.
Aside from a police cruiser here and there, there wasn't a soul to be found anywhere on the roads. There were only the bands of wind and rain -- followed by the eerie lulls in between, when it felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the atmosphere and replaced by the oppressive silence of absolute absence. The effect was simply chilling.
The Porsche screamed along US-1, the needle pushing 85.
I had no idea what our destination was, but I knew that I obviously had to stop at some point; the worst thing imaginable would be getting caught in the full brunt of the storm while sitting in a car. At one point, we passed the National Hurricane Center and I gave serious consideration to just pulling into the parking lot and banging on their door.
Hey guys, wanna REALLY help some folks out tonight?
But it wasn't long after we'd passed the NHC building that we came upon a small hotel, the lights of which were still inexplicably on. It was a two-story job with outdoor entrances to the rooms; not exactly the underground bunker I'd hoped for, but it would have to do. I pulled the emergency brake and swung the car around, then threw it into first and headed back toward what was at the very least a concrete structure.
I've been thankful for many things in my lifetime: My family's seemingly bottomless reservoir of good will and humor, the ability to survive a brain tumor, the fact that sharks can't breathe air -- but never have I been more thankful than when I realized that not only was the little guy at the Gables Inn sitting behind his desk and willing to open the door for us, but that at a few minutes past midnight on August 24th, 1992 -- the day Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida -- he had one room available.
There was chaos, absolute and infinite -- the terrifying sound of the world being torn apart. It was undeniably beautiful. Intensely sensuous. Abby and I listened to the fury of the wind and the scream of the roof being stripped away. We barely spoke, content to feel each other's husky, labored breathing. Exploding transformers right outside the window hammered the room with staccato blasts of blue and white light that sliced through the blackness and turned our shadows into living art against the wall. A final crack, and a sliver of the ceiling gave way, letting in warm drops of rain to mix with the sweat. Trees were ripped from the ground and slammed into the wall outside, their branches scraping violently against the pulsating window like fingernails across bare skin. It was nature in its simplest, rawest form -- monstrous and powerful and exquisite and pure.
I gently slid Abby down onto the floor between the bed and the wall and pulled the mattress up overtop of her, to keep her safe from any possible debris.
And then I walked hesitantly to the door, because like the child in Close Encounters, I had to see for myself what it looked like -- the monster scratching at the other side. The wind was blowing from the east, while the door to the room faced west; it was theoretically safe to open.
I placed my hand on the doorknob, twisted it gently and pushed.
What I saw when I looked into the storm was beyond description. My reaction, beyond awe. I've never seen such power.
I was in the center of the maelstrom.
I have no idea how long I stood there, but eventually I closed the door and crawled under the mattress with Abby, who was already asleep. I pulled her tightly against me, then closed my eyes and let everything go dark and silent.
Part 2: The Other Side
There was nothing, and that nothing was something -- its own imposing physical presence.
Although I was sure my eyes were open, there was no light; although I believed myself to be awake, there was no sound.
It wasn't until I felt Abby's soft hair in my face that I was sure we still existed at all. I exhaled and twisted my neck slightly, then reached a free arm up from around the young girl pressed against me and pushed hard on the mattress above us, sliding it out of the way. Suddenly, I could see -- the world going from black to shades of muted gray.
"Abby, wake up," I whispered.
She groaned and rolled over onto her back in the tiny shelter we had created between the bed's heavy box spring and the wall of the hotel room. My body ached as I pulled myself up and awkwardly half-crawled out into the space of the room. As reality began to come into a difficult focus, I heard the sound of dripping -- looked up and saw timid light coming through a hole in the ceiling, water traversing its jagged edges and falling to the soaked carpet below.
I rubbed the haze out of my eyes. When I looked toward the window, I noticed that it was practically opaque -- covered almost completely by the branches of a tree that had fallen and now rested against it. Astonishingly though, the window wasn't even cracked. How it held together I'll never know, but I'll always be grateful that it did.
I slid into my jeans then moved over to the door and pushed it open, bathing the room in soft, white light. I immediately noticed the strong breeze and heard it moving through tree branches that I couldn't see, pushing leaves and debris along the ground. I stepped out onto the landing and allowed myself a first tentative look around. From my vantage point, facing west, perpendicular to US-1, there was little to see, unless you took into account the miracle of the Gables Inn's ability to have somehow just withstood a Category 5 hurricane without completely evaporating. I saw one or two people -- seemingly shell-shocked -- wandering the parking area directly beneath our second-floor room. I leaned forward and peered over the railing with a lump in my throat, fearing the absolute worst, only to find that aside from being plastered with wayward palm fronds, the Porsche seemed to have survived Andrew unscathed.
I jumped slightly when I felt something brush against me from behind, then closed my eyes and leaned back into the warmth of Abby, who at that moment felt even softer than I remembered. She'd wrapped herself in a blanket, and was now resting her head against my back.
"How bad is it?" I heard her voice and felt her breath on my shoulder.
"I honestly don't know. We should get out of here and find out -- get to the station, if we can."
I turned around, held her tightly for a moment -- then kissed her gently and went back inside to get dressed and get my car keys.
It was bad.
It was very bad.
Abby and I drove in silence, slowly and carefully maneuvering the car around the heavy debris that littered the highway -- everything from street lights and powerlines to trees, billboards and even the massive air-conditioning units from the tops of the high buildings nearby; all were strewn across US-1 and had now turned it into a frightening obstacle course. Every so often, the oppressive stillness inside the car would be broken by the sound of Abby's quiet sobs.
Entire buildings were flattened. Once lush trees were made barren skeletons, standing as sentinels over a wasteland, if they still stood at all. Everywhere, windows had been shattered, turning the structures they once adorned and protected into seemingly atrophied frameworks -- empty and bare. The roofs of homes had been shorn away wholesale and now rested in various spots along the highway so that it would've actually been possible to make a macabre game out of matching the house to its missing canopy.
There were no stop signs. No traffic signals. No electricity. No nothing.
And everywhere you turned your head, there were people trickling out from under shelter looking dazed -- concussed -- the way I always imagined a person looks immediately after being involved in a bad car accident. It's the face of someone who's gone into shock and is seconds away from collapsing -- someone who's already dead, he or she just doesn't know it yet.
We had been warned what a storm like this could do.
Our most dire predictions and worst fears weren't even close.
Abby and I were completely cut off from everyone. We couldn't reach our families, nor could we get in contact with our co-workers. The police had already set up blockades and detours aimed at keeping traffic flowing in certain areas -- safely out of others. With the radio now on and tuned to one of the few stations still broadcasting continuously, we decided to head north, toward Abby's family's condo; it was near water, but from what we were hearing, the storm had veered south at the last minute to come ashore in South Miami-Dade County. Places like Cutler Ridge, Homestead and Saga Bay had all taken direct hits and were now eerie dead zones; there was no information coming out of them. For all we knew at that moment, they simply didn't exist anymore.
The irony of course, which wasn't lost on either of us, was that by heading south on US-1 and ending up in Coral Gables the previous night, without meaning to, we had traveled into the storm as opposed to away from it.
"Next time, I'll let you drive," I said, upon learning of this little revelation.
The farther we got away from the southern end of the county, the more things seemed to return to normal. Power was still out almost everywhere, though, and when we finally arrived at Abby's mother's condo, we were forced to grab an emergency flashlight and navigate a dark and damp stairway -- with only the sound of dripping water echoing across concrete -- to get to the upper floors. We eventually made our way down a hallway illuminated by the sad glow of emergency lights, located the right door and dug Abby's keys out of her purse. Once inside, the gun-metal gray sky beyond the condo's floor-to-ceiling windows provided at least a workable amount of light.
Abby called out to her mother. I slipped into the darkened kitchen, found the faucet and splashed cool water on my face.
After a moment, Abby appeared as a silhouette in the doorway leading to the dining room.
"She's not here."
"She leave a note or anything?" I asked as I used the bottom of my t-shirt to dry my face.
"No, she probably went to my aunt's place up in Boca. That would've made the most sense. She'd figure I was okay."
"That'd be her first mistake," I said through a tired smile.
I heard a chuckle come from the silhouette.
"Wanna try using the phone, see if it works -- see who's out there?" I asked, after a moment of deafening silence.
Amazingly, the phone actually did work, the problem of course was that a lot of the ones we were dialing didn't. The station, as far as we could tell, was still out of commission and Abby and I quietly admitted to each other the grim feeling of calling a television station in a major American city and getting a recording.
With no other legitimate options, and certainly nothing better to do, we turned on a battery-powered radio and laid down on the couch.
We fell asleep listening to stories of the end of the world.
Part 3: Among the Living
I came around the corner at a quick jog, only to be stopped in my tracks by a heavy black bag which hit me square in the chest. I fumbled for a second, caught it, then looked up to see where it came from. Standing in front of me was Mary Alvarez, our senior executive producer.
"Congratulations, you're going to South Dade. Be on the helipad in ten minutes."
She may as well have just spoken to me in Inuit.
"I'm going where?" I said, chasing after her as she turned and began taking long strides back to the newsdesk.
"Cutler Ridge. You'll be field producing for Sally," the back of her head said.
I suddenly debated telling her that, having never actually gone to journalism school, I had absolutely no idea what the hell a field producer did and therefore her choice of me for this particular assignment was a recipe for disaster. I thought the better of it in short order, choosing instead to bullshit around my complete ignorance.
"Uh, okay," I stammered. "Any particulars you're looking for while I'm down there?"
When in doubt, pretend to know things in the abstract while bolstering the ego of management by deferring to it and asserting that only someone of a higher pay grade can be brilliant enough to understand the specifics of anything.
"Find stories. Keep her in check. The first assignment should be a breeze -- God help you with the second."
"Look, Mary--" The cracks were quickly starting to show.
She spun around and looked me right in the eye.
The morning after Abby and I made our exodus from the Gables Inn and our treacherous journey across Miami-Dade county, we were back at the station, which had just officially reopened for business. Right before dawn, we had left the condo -- where the power was still off -- and headed south along I-95, then east toward North Bay Village. We showed our WSVN IDs and had been allowed to pass a police barricade to get across the causeway to the island. Overall, North Bay Village wasn't badly damaged: a few traffic lights down, no power aside from backup generators, debris in the streets, but that was about it.
We hadn't been at work long -- dealing with the trauma of getting the station up and running again -- before Mike Dreaden noticed the two of us standing close together, whispering to each other, calm amid the madness. He lumbered over and asked where we'd each managed to find safety during the storm. Abby and I just laughed a little and separated without saying a word.
Now, the two of us were face to face again.
I had just come back from grabbing my overnight bag out of the car and had both that and the bag Mary threw at me earlier -- the one full of extra equipment for Sally -- slung over my shoulders. I looked like a pack mule.
"You know, I'm trying to stay professional about this whole thing," I said quietly, resisting the urge to run my fingers along Abby's arm.
"Yeah, I know. Do you have any idea how long you'll be gone?"
"None. A few days at least I'm sure. Who knows."
There was silence in the tiny space we occupied together at the center of the newsroom, contrasted by the roar of activity all around us. I checked my watch -- time to go. I glanced up at her and was just opening my mouth to say goodbye when she cut me off.
"Oh fuck it," she said, and leaned in and pressed her mouth hard against mine. "Take care of yourself."
So much for discreet.
A couple of minutes later, I was ducking below the rotor of the chopper, shielding my eyes against the whirlwind it kicked up. I threw both bags onto the seat in the back, then climbed in and slammed the door shut behind me. After patting the pilot on the shoulder and strapping in, I reached into my overnight bag and pulled out my CD Walkman, plugging the headphones into my ears.
As we lifted off, and the ground receded beneath us, Neil Young began to speak to me -- singing that our only hope was to keep on rockin' in the free world.
From the air, the scope of the destruction became clear. The amount of damage was staggering -- overwhelming.
As the chopper headed south, low along the coast, skeletal high-rises slid past us, their windows blown out. Below us, houses were in pieces and trees blocked the streets and highways. Cars were overturned and scattered like children's toys.
When we reached the Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, the images were almost beyond belief. Every boat, every yacht and sailboat along the docks, was smashed and sunk in the shallow water. Boats were piled on top of each other in a gruesome parody of dry dock; splinters of what were once expensive vessels scattered everywhere. As we turned inland to bee-line toward our final destination deep within South Dade, I pulled down my sunglasses and leaned into the window -- awe-struck by what I was seeing.
There, on dry ground, laying against a line of trees at least a half-mile from the edge of the bay, was a ship. A freighter. It was hundreds of feet long. It had been picked up by the storm surge, blown inland -- and then left there when the waters receded.
As we pushed farther and farther into the heart of the dead zone created by the storm's fury, I realized that there was less and less to see -- simply because there was less and less there.
Everything was gone. Leveled. Wiped clean.
Entire communities, once thriving, had vanished as if they'd never existed. It was as if Andrew had a plan -- an actual thought process -- and it involved returning everything to zero. Years of evolution, both structural and cultural, had been obliterated. Thoroughly erased.
After what felt like an eternity, the chopper banked and began to descend. I looked down and once again felt a stab of dizziness penetrate the space directly behind my eyes. Our landing area was the Cutler Ridge Mall -- or where it had once stood anyway. Most of the mall -- formerly a giant enclosed shopping Mecca featuring stores like JC Penney and Sears -- had been flattened. What remained was nothing but rubble. Its parking lot was now a staging area for the National Guard; military green vehicles, hastily-constructed tents and troops at muster seemed to go on forever.
It cemented the impression that we were entering a war zone, which in fact we were.
The chopper set down in a barren area of the lot near what was once the north end of the mall. I ripped off my headphones, grabbed my bags and jumped out, shouting a thank you to the pilot on my way. In front of me as I once again ducked beneath the rotor was a familiar face: One of our photographers -- a guy named Brad Friedkin.
"Welcome to hell," he shouted over the roar of the chopper.
"Is it all like this?" I returned at equal volume, still shielding my face.
"This? Oh fuck no. It's much worse." He was smiling from ear to ear. "At least they have power generators and air conditioners here."
He grabbed the black supply bag from my shoulder and led me to a waiting Chevy Blazer that was already running. As I climbed into the front seat beside him, the AC did indeed feel wonderful. The heat and humidity outside was punishing; I had only been out in it for a few minutes and I could already feel sweat running down the backs of my legs.
As Brad put the truck into gear, he glanced over at me.
"Do you have any idea what you're supposed to be doing here?"
Now that I was safely miles away from a manager: "Are you kidding? I was hoping you'd know."
He pushed hard on the gas and the truck twisted out onto a side street.
"Yeah, you're gonna fit in just fine," he said, seemingly as an afterthought.
Brad gunned the truck to the intersection of US-1, our only route down deeper into the scarred heart of the devastation and a straight line to the Cutler Ridge processing center. Unfortunately, the highway was a frozen line of cars; traffic wasn't going anywhere in either direction. Before I could even ask what his plan was or suggest one of my own, Brad had pulled alongside a national guardsman and rolled down his window.
"Excuse me," he shouted, getting the attention of the weary guardsman. "Is that thing loaded?" Brad was pointing to the M16 slung over the guardsman's shoulder -- a weapon which appeared to be missing a clip.
"Not right now," he responded.
And with that, Brad swung the Blazer past the guy and sped off along the side of the highway, leaving a cloud of dirt in our wake -- by-passing the traffic completely.
The National Guard and the Office of Emergency Management had taken one of the few structures still standing in Cutler Ridge and turned it into a processing center for the victims of the storm. It was a place where anyone could come and find food and bottled water, both of which were almost impossible to come by otherwise as there was no electricity and no clean water for miles in any direction.
Day and night, the place was packed with crowds of desperate people, all clamoring for items which they likely had taken for granted up until two days ago. South Dade had been plunged into the dark ages, and after only 48 hours without the modern conveniences that had over the years unwittingly become necessities, an almost feral atmosphere was beginning to take hold. Tempers were short. A primitive rage was practically visible behind the eyes of everyone you came into contact with.
It wasn't a reality anyone recognized anymore. It was a world consumed by madness.
For the first several hours after my arrival, I herded my anchor, Sally Fitz, here and there, making sure she was in place for her live shots and keeping in constant contact with the station. Having been on the other side, in the control room, I was well aware of what the producers and directors needed from the crews in the field to keep things running smoothly and keep themselves from storming out the door and never coming the hell back. Things went according to plan for the most part, despite the constantly changing situation at the processing center and the fact that in a fit of bizarre anger, Sally had already told another of our photographers, Ralph Rayburn, to "shove it up his ass" live on the air. It was moments like those that forced me to retire to the air conditioned live truck every so often to sit quietly and contemplate a career change.
As the sun set, the darkness began to swallow the entire area whole. With no electricity for miles, a walk even a few feet outside the confines of the processing center would plunge you into impenetrable black. Once again, the world reset by the hand of God -- returned to a time before man and his innovations could lay any claims or plant any flags of progress.
But -- when you looked up, an entirely new reality was revealed. You could see forever. Past the stars. Past the galaxies. Maybe into the center of heaven itself. It was beautiful beyond dreams.
This was what I stared into that first night, before finally closing my eyes to get a couple hours of sleep. That infinite sky.
Somewhere in my dream, Abby told me that we have a problem -- and then told me again.
"We have a problem," came a different voice, one I didn't quite recognize.
I slowly pried open my eyes to find our truck operator towering over me. It was still dark outside.
I groaned, then -- "What's up?"
"The National Guard's threatening to kill Rick," he said matter-of-factly.
I just laid there for a moment.
Finally -- "Well, is there anything we can do to stop them?"
"We should probably try."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
I pulled myself up off the Astroturf carpet that I'd been laying on and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes with the fingers of one hand -- exhaled heavily -- then trudged off to find the National Guard commander in the hopes of keeping him from killing WSVN's main anchor.
Rick Sanchez was stationed about thirty-miles or so south of us, at the second processing center -- the one in the even more heavily damaged city of Homestead. Already a somewhat divisive presence in Miami television, he was either busting his ass to get the word out about the desperate needs of those in the hurricane zone or arrogantly showboating -- taking "The Rick Show" on the road, as it were -- depending on your point of view. As it turned out, Sanchez would go on to inspire this same kind of extreme love or hatred throughout his career, even, eventually, on a national level; this crap was just the tip of the iceberg.
I finally found the commander in charge of the Guard detachment at our station.
"Sir, what's the problem?" I asked, still groggy.
He turned around and motioned to a column of semi tractor-trailers over his shoulder which he was, at that very moment, attempting to direct out of the traffic. "That's the problem," he said, frustrated. "Your man in Homestead went on the air and said they needed baby food. Guess what's in those trucks?"
Rick asks for it down there and it appears up here. Fucking lovely.
"Who sent all that?" I asked, pretending like I could somehow exert any control over the situation whatsoever.
"Who knows. One of the markets up in Broward probably. We're still trying to figure that out." He turned around and ordered a guardsman to put flares down in the road, then whipped his head back toward me. "This is the second time this has happened in 24-hours. We're gonna either pull him off the air or just shoot him -- unless you do something about this. We don't have any place to put all this crap and we don't have a way to get it all down to Homestead right now."
"So, it's basically just gonna go bad."
"Give the kid a prize," he said, stomping off.
About two minutes later, I was inside the live truck on the two-way with our newsdesk, trying to explain the situation in terms as unequivocal as possible.
"If we don't put a muzzle on Sanchez, they're gonna dispatch Martin Sheen up the river to take him out."
"Well, you know how it is with Rick," came the response from Dreaden.
They're helpless parents who can't control their problem child.
"Just do something please. They're gonna shut him down -- I'm serious."
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door of the live truck. I reached over and opened it and standing there was a guy in a sweat-soaked t-shirt and a trucker hat.
"Hey, you with the TV? We got a bunch of stuff your guy says they need down in Homestead. Where do you want it?"
It was later that day that I tied a bandana around my head to soak up the filthy sweat and set out with a photographer to find a trailer park that supposedly had been all but annihilated by Andrew. An hour or so previously, Sally Fitz had sought me out to tell me that she'd heard rumors of the tiny community and that it had yet to be photographed by any news crews. So, myself and a shooter named Eddie grabbed some equipment, climbed in the back of a pick-up that was driven by someone who said he knew of the trailer park in question and wanted everyone to understand what had happened there, and were soon on the road headed for God-knows-where.
As we rode under a sky that was nearly white with moisture, as well as the ugly gray clouds that punctuated it, we shot video of the homes and businesses that we passed. All were badly damaged, and yet many looked as if they'd been boarded up after the storm hit in an effort to protect what could still be salvaged. Everywhere, there were signs on various properties which featured menacing warnings of the harm that would come to looters, should they even consider trying to take what little of value the hurricane had spared. Given that there was almost no law to speak of in South Dade at the time, I tended to believe, say, the sign that read: LOOTERS WILL BE KILLED!
The truck veered off the highway after some time and pushed down a dirt road and through tall reeds. After several minutes of rough riding that nearly bounced the two of us out of the back on more than one occasion, we entered a clearing -- an open field surrounded by low, barren trees.
It took me a moment to realize that it wasn't a clearing at all. It had once been a trailer park.
There was nothing left of it now. Not a thing was intact. Nothing stood higher than maybe a couple of feet off the ground.
I climbed out of the truck as it stopped and took a few cautious steps forward. There was no sound at all; even the hot breeze seemed to be silent, as it swept not through dense leaves but around desolate and bare branches. I advanced slowly down what had been one of the wide streets between the homes. As I did, I looked to my left and right -- taking in the wreckage of what had once been people's lives.
There was a crib, crushed under the twisted metal of one trailer's roof. Pictures scattered everywhere. Memories. There were toys. A child's shoe. Clothes. Even a wedding dress. A bicycle with training wheels still on it was now perched in what little remained of a tree.
A thumping sound finally broke the crushing silence, the sound of helicopters. As it grew louder, I looked up to see a formation of military choppers glide directly over our heads.
A moment later, the artificial thunder created by the helicopters retreated over the horizon and it was quiet again.
Except for the strange buzz.
And that was what I noticed what had been there all along -- busying themselves above the piles of wreckage where homes once stood. Where people once lived.
We were standing several feet apart now, but I turned to Eddie and spoke in a near whisper. Sadly. Desperately. Helplessly.
"They're all dead."
He didn't answer -- just stared, slowly taking in the entire scene.
I swallowed a lump in my throat, which I hoped would help me fight back the tears.
"Yeah, there's no way they all got out," he finally answered quietly -- reverently.
Eddie glanced over at the man who'd driven us to this place. This graveyard. They both simply nodded at each other, and Eddie put his camera on his shoulder and began shooting. I moved back to get out of his shot, then happened to turn my head and look down. On the ground next to me was a picture of a middle-aged couple. They were smiling.
Three days later -- after reporting the story of the trailer park and alerting the overworked authorities to its existence; after mornings, afternoons and nights of live shot after live shot after live shot; after almost no sleep -- I caught a ride back to the makeshift landing pad at the Cutler Ridge Mall. I watched the chopper land. Boarded it. Closed my eyes as it ascended out of the war zone. Opened them only occasionally on the trip back to notice as green returned to the world below; as blue water appeared on the horizon and in time slipped gently beneath us; as the island of North Bay Village materialized ahead -- the island that everyone thought would be covered in water. I'd eventually return home and find that my apartment had also survived the storm. It had come through just fine.
As the chopper touched down on the helipad, its rotors still screaming, I once again thanked the pilot and stepped out into the whirlwind, where I'd spent a lot of time recently.
As I looked up, standing safely outside of the maelstrom was Abby.
She gave me a warm smile, and held me tightly when I reached her. Together we turned and walked toward the rear door of the station.
She held it open for me, and welcomed me back to work.