On Friday August 21st 1992 I was playing in the calm clear water off Miami Beach. As usual, I re-re-applied mountains of sunscreen on my shoulders, back and chest but did not yet have to slather the top of my head in fear of a glowing red noggin. This was so damn long ago I still had all my hair… well… most of it. There was not much in the world I loved more than just care-freely watching the day turn to night while floating in the warm ocean.
Emotionally my world might have been a bit messy but I still managed to juggle a somewhat profitable career while simultaneously hiding from reality and responsibility. I had helped my old friend Madeline move into her cool summer vacation Ocean Drive condo a year earlier but still somehow managed to not yet wear out my open invitation to visit. The place was located across the street from the beach right next door to the jumping Clevelander hotel which featured the most conspicuous party bar on the strip.
I officially moved out of Miami over a decade earlier when I left for college but had started going back more and more especially after I started spending time with Judy, a smart, sweet woman with a passion for partying. Unfortunately my brain had gotten very good at sabotaging most of my relationships before they even got started and my constant traveling for work usually took care of the rest. So even when she moved on and stopped phoning me, Miami definitely kept calling.
At the time, Miami Beach was starting a transition which was as unexpected and dramatic as Bruce to Caitlyn. A lot of the old Art Deco hotels were still ad-hoc homes for the aged filled with feeble geriatrics that looked older and more rickety then the unkempt buildings themselves. But those Methuselah-like inhabitants who could still recall Miami’s original glory days were quickly dying off and this renascence was going to happen without them.
Several trendy all-night clubs opened attracting the young drug-fueled partying locals to the somewhat cuspy neighborhood. It was becoming a hot spot for model agencies and, through some creative overseas marketing, suddenly European vacationers filled the handful of recently restored hotels.
In between Collin’s Ave’s faded Five & Dime clothing stores, run -down greasy spoons, old timey Burlesque club, grimy Cuban coffee counters and scummy XXX movie theater, almost overnight shiny brand new chef-driven restaurants, modern boutiques and high-end clothing stores were popping up everywhere. It still had a long way to go but South Beach was getting its chic back.
Madeline’s condo was in a tired weather-worn very un-gentrified building. Even the loud whirring of the old window mount air-conditioner could not cover up the bar next door’s all-night thumping dance music and constant crashing beer/wine/liquor bottles being tossed by the dozens into the metal dumpster two floors down in the alley just beyond the window.
In between my traveling consulting jobs, I was in Miami so much that I had developed daily routines. It was not a rough life. I’d hang out at night till I collapsed, then after a quick few hours’ sleep, I’d slip out for a peaceful early morning beach jog. Next I’d indulge in a late breakfast of Cuban pastries with little cups of sugary espresso until at some point the Cuban coffees magically turned into tall green bottles of El Presidente beer.
Then came the best part of my day, bobbing in the warm summer ocean as day turned to night. I’d watch the beach slowly empty as the lackadaisical low hanging tropical clouds lazily drifted along reflecting the the brilliant sunset colors. As it got darker, the air temperature cooled off till eventually the water felt comparatively warmer. Sometimes my world has been really good. Sometimes… not so much.
On Saturday August 22st 1992 Madeline and I met her somewhat estranged Father for a late lunch by the marina on Biscayne Bay at Monty Trainers in Coconut Grove. He mentioned in passing the hurricane that was brewing in the Atlantic was looking real bad. We had been previously nonchalant about the far away storm and at that point had been oblivious about how serious it had gotten. Hurricane Andrew was coming but at that point my only thought was that a little rain might briefly interrupt my daily dips in the ocean.
On the drive back to the condo, the radio announcers made us a bit panicky talking about an imminent serious hit not experienced in several lifetimes. The streets on the beach were buzzing but it was not the typical chaos generated by the usual mix of leathery-skined elderly, beet-red beach bums and glammed-up club-goers.
The craziness all around us fed into a shared paranoia up and down the beach that night. Rumors spread and every overheard TV or radio blasted hurricane prep and tracking info. Madeline and I realized we were woefully unprepared and headed over to the market for supplies to weather the storm. Obviously we were not the only ones who had put off doing any hurricane prep, the local Panty Pride supermarket was in crazed frenzy.
Shelves were empty as panicked people threw anything edible into their carts. One guy was running through the store muttering loudly while constantly crashing his cart as he frantically grabbed obscure items from any shelf within his reach. The canned goods aisle was barren except for a few stray cans of survival-unfriendly items like sauerkraut, whole clams and 100% pumpkin. Even though necessary staples like water, soda and ice were nonexistent and only odd-ball sized batteries remained, the check-out lines still snaked around the entire store with people buying whatever they thought they could use or trade.
After a stressful night of taping windows, stowing valuables and doing any other storm preparations we could think of, on Sunday morning August 23rd 1992, instead of waking up to the usual sound of straggling partiers and smashing bottles, we heard the booming sound of the police slowly cruising the Miami Beach streets blasting mandatory evacuation orders.
Andrew was now a category five hurricane that was predicted to make landfall somewhere on the Miami coast that night. The news reported the roads heading north were already at stand still. The few service stations with any gas remaining, had waiting lines of cars for miles. The potential storm surge if it directly hit the beach would cover the streets around the condo with several feet of water. The repeated blaring police warnings from the street below were louder than the roaring air conditioner. We had to leave but didn’t know where to go.
During the dark pre-dawn hours of of Monday August 24th 1992 Hurricane Andrew slammed into the coast of Florida a few dozen miles south of Miami utterly decimating businesses, houses and lives as it barreled unrelentingly north through the far inland suburbs. The same suburbs I lived in while going to High School. The same suburbs that I still had so many friends who in the blink of a hurricane eye lost their homes, possessions and place of employment. The same suburbs Madeline and I evacuated to, in order to get away from the dangerous beach.
It might have been one of the scariest nights of my life but I got through with my world intact. This past week millions upon millions of Atlantic ocean islanders and Floridians faced a hurricane twice the size of Andrew. A few weeks ago a few million more in Texas dealt with Harvey. Each one of those people has their own horror story leading up to the storm and although most got through relatively unscathed, for many things only got worse afterwards.