Mark Reagan sent us this personal essay after we asked listeners to share their experiences of Hurricane Andrew. Reagan is now the cops and courts reporter for the Brownsville Herald.
I was 8 when Andrew charged at us with its fury. I lived with my parents and two sisters in a house on Jamaica Drive in Cutler Ridge.
We evacuated to Kendall to weather the storm in a house on a small hill. I don’t remember what the drive there was like. I don’t really remember what we ate. I remember what we watched. Our eyes were glued to the TV news. At some point my sisters and I piled into a bed and the adults stayed up all night. And then it was 4 a.m.
My Dad rushed into the room we were sleeping in and grabbed us out of the bed. I remember being able to hear the walls. I remember being scared and confused. An incredible, howling roar suffocated the world outside. We went into the hallway in the middle of the house. I think there were nine or 10 of us in there. I held my 2-year-old sister that night and we ate an entire bag of pretzels. To this day, when I don’t know what to do or I get anxious, I eat pretzels. The storm may have lasted a few hours, but the aftermath has stayed with me for 20 years. And to this day, I wake up at 4 a.m. on Aug. 24 like clockwork.
When it got quiet, a few of the adults went out to see if the storm was over or to see if the eye was passing over us. By this time all we had was the battery-operated radio and as I remember it, there were conflicting reports as to whether Andrew had left. But it had. So we went outside.
The first thing I remember was a man in a metal flat boat floating where a road used to be. It’s shocking to see a perfectly normal world transformed into an unbelievable mess of twisted metal and bright orange, red shredded plywood.
I remember being incredibly anxious to know what happened to our house. To keep busy while we waited and my Dad made what I think were several attempts to get to our house, we cleaned. Even my 2-year-old sister cleaned, trying to sweep up glass.
Once my Dad did make it back to Cutler Ridge we learned it was a different story than Kendall. Entire blocks were bulldozed to the ground — just pulverized. People said it was like a war zone, but I’ve never been to a war zone so I don’t know. We fared a lot better than most of our neighbors as we only lost a small portion of our roof and all of our trees. Water damage was extensive. The two houses next to ours were completely destroyed. Our neighbors spray-painted The Ritz on what was left to the shell of their house. Our concrete steel reinforced carport was gone. It was down the street at the end of the block in someone’s yard. We also had a few roofs in our backyard. I’m so thankful we evacuated.
It was chaotic after the storm. There was martial law. You weren’t allowed outside when it was dark. Living in the rubble became normal real quick. Boiling our water became habit. The sound of the generator would put me to sleep. During the days we worked the rubble at home and at church, salvaging what we could and piling the rest of it into giant hills of trees, walls, and everything else.
I’ll be forever thankful to the National Guard. They were so kind and gave me MREs to eat, which I hid from the other kids who would try and take them.
I don’t remember how many shelters we stayed in. Again, it’s all very disjointed. I’m not sure I even went to the fourth or third grade. I just don’t know. At some point, though, when we were either allowed to go back to our house on Jamaica Drive or when we went back anyway, I started collecting small inch-wide metal discs that I think were used in roofing. They were everywhere and were bent in incredible shapes from the storm.
Between the hard work of cleaning up every day and the joy of finding strange things, I made the best of it. And I helped take care of my sisters to the best of my ability because I knew my parents had harder work to do every day.
And Andrew didn’t leave the kind of mess that takes even a few months to clean up. Andrew broke everything. And not just infrastructure, but people too. And so we left Florida.
After moving to Texas from Florida in 1995, I tried to adjust to sixth grade in San Antonio, three years out of the rubble.
I felt displaced —even with my family. I didn’t really know who I was. All I knew was I survived something awful and no one there would ever be able to understand that. And then I learned that most people didn’t even care about Andrew.
I didn’t have the mattress-over-my-body-in-the-bathtub experience. In some ways, I guess I’m not qualified to write this. However, survival is important. All of our stories, not just mine, serve as testament to something deeper and more meaningful than the storm itself. Our stories are testaments to humanity and true grit. We survivors remind the world that no matter how awful and hopeless life can be in the wake and surge of disaster, homelessness and catastrophe — by putting one foot in front of another, we continue day to day. We rebuilt our homes, but I think we also rebuilt our lives while redefining who we are. Everyone lost more than possessions on August 24. We lost our sense of how life is supposed to work, and realized either at the time or later, that nothing is ever permanent and safe. And at the end of the day, all anyone can do is put one foot in front of the other with a smile on their face, if that’s manageable.
So it went and so it goes.
Tune in to our radio documentary, “Remembering Andrew,” on August 24th at 9 a.m. on WLRN 91.3 FM/WKWM 91.5 FM.