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Covering Florida’s past big storms: Music and wait from hell

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Winds whipped around my pulled-tight raincoat with a fierce noise as pieces of a giant red sign my newspaper installed atop its office tower littered the ground around me. After what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, Hurricane Andrew had arrived.

Hours and days later I would see how deadly those winds were, how vast the devastation they caused. I would cry as I watched Andrew’s child victims trying to cope with upside-down life in a tent city surrounded by rubble and rotting food. Yet nearly 25 years later, my strongest memories aren’t the wind, tears or debris. It was the adrenaline-stoked waiting.

As Andrew approached, those of us covering the hurricane — and our families, friends and neighbors — were inundated with a sense of impending disaster, fear, and yes, excitement. For journalists, it felt like it just might become the story of a lifetime.

The year was 1992. I was the main hurricane writer for the Sun-Sentinel, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, but more than 25 years had passed since a hurricane had hit us. That’s not too different than this last decade, between hurricanes Wilma and Matthew.

Like many other people in Florida, I thought of killer storms as an abstraction. Working the hurricane beat meant going on a rare yearly trip to a hurricane conference, and having to write the newspaper’s annual supplement telling residents how to prepare.

After a few years writing the same thing each year, I convinced my bosses that it would be fun to drive home the point of storm danger by writing about a fictional hurricane — clearly marked fiction — and the aftermath of a direct hit on the region. My dreamed-up hurricane — I named it Igor — even attracted interest in a television miniseries. But it missed one thing: reality.

After Andrew hit, I discovered that my imagination paled next to Mother Nature. Andrew was far more devastating.

It was an odd Atlantic hurricane season to begin with; an El Nino year, and the first named tropical storm didn’t form until August 17, which at the time was a record for the latest first named storm. And for a while, it seemed like Andrew would fizzle. Few paid attention. I even called it raggedy Andy in a story.

Then it got stronger, and stronger. Meteorologists compared it to boxer Mike Tyson, compact and powerful. It was so strong that a dozen years later, meteorologists upgraded its maximum winds to 167 mph at landfall, east of Homestead. That made it a maximum Category 5 killer instead of a Category 4. Causing $26 billion in damage, Andrew was the costliest storm in history, until Katrina.

It was, in fact, the story of a lifetime.

My competitor, Martin Merzer of the Miami Herald, had an editor tell him: “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.”

After spending a couple days hunkered down at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables — which itself would be severely damaged — I was brought to downtown Fort Lauderdale to ride out the storm and help write the story from my paper’s headquarters. I spent a good part of that time at someone else’s desk, because mine was too close to the window. When we could, we escaped the eyes of editors and scampered outside to actually feel and see the fury we were writing about.

Meanwhile, my wife hunkered down with our 19-month-old son as Andrew shook our four-room house, scraped off its shingles and uprooted the surrounding trees and fences.

“You’ve never head the wind wail like that in your life. It goes right through you to the spine,” Anne Marie Reidy-Borenstein recalled. “You can’t hold your kid hard enough.”

And we lived 70 miles north of Homestead, the first city to fall as Andrew’s eye roared across Florida.

My colleague Bob Knotts had the assignment I envied: Get as close to the eye as safely possible. That last part seemed iffy.

He and photographer Ursula Seeman had been guessing at best spots all day, and ended up on the third or fourth floor of a parking garage in downtown Miami, quite close to where Andrew made landfall, but still north of it.

“If this thing falls like a bunch of pancakes, I’ll be like a pancake,” Knotts recalled thinking. And when Andrew hit, it was too late to move, even when a collapse felt imminent: “When you feel a concrete parking lot floor undulating it’s quite unsettling.”

Then there was the sound: “The sound of a hurricane is the music from hell,” said Knotts, now a veteran of Florida hurricanes and president of The Humanity Project, an arts-based anti-bullying program.

As Matthew threatened Thursday to cause catastrophic damage once more in Florida, Knotts recalled his fear, but also the excitement: “It’s almost as if people feel a little more alive.”

One of the newspaper’s editors, Hayes Johnson, said Thursday that for a long time, he felt guilty for sending reporters into the storm.

“I recall telling everyone to find the ‘safest’ place they could and to ride it out. When I was all over, I realized we were lucky to get everyone back,” he said.

Nearly a quarter century later, excitement still beckons, along with dread at the possibility of lives lost. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve felt a hurricane firsthand, but each time one threatens, I want to be there, to feel the adrenaline as I wait for disaster to strike.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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