On the 20th anniversary, children remember how Hurricane Andrew changed them

The kids of Hurricane Andrew were shaped and influenced in different ways by the storm.

08/22/2012 5:00 AM

08/22/2012 9:32 PM

The children of Hurricane Andrew, now adults, don’t talk much about the storm anymore. It’s 20 years ago, after all. Ancient history.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find an indelible mark on many. A heightened respect for Mother Nature. A clenched stomach during a bad thunderstorm. A little extra vigilance when it comes to disaster preparations.

You never forget it,” says Tom Vick, who was 9 in August 1992, when the storm that changed everything struck South Miami-Dade County. “It’s something you always carry with you no matter what happens to you.”

Most children who were initially traumatized by the disaster recovered fairly quickly, according to Annette M. La Greca , a psychology professor and pediatrics at the University of Miami and the lead investigator of two studies on children’s reactions to Andrew. While many children reported significant stress in the first three months after the hurricane, by the end of the school year, 10 months later, most no longer experienced symptoms. Those numbers had improved even more 42 months after the disaster, the last time La Greca and her colleagues interviewed the children.

“In the long haul, relatively few people, children or adults, go on to develop severe, permanent problems,” La Greca added.

Even for the most well-adjusted adult, though, the world after Andrew was altered, a little less certain. For some, it was the moment they grew up.

Tom Vick, 29, a fourth generation farmer, learned early on to respect the natural world . But from Andrew, he began to understand its sheer power . “She gives and she takes away,” he said, standing in a longan grove in the Redland.

His family lived in a house in the Redland in 1992 but decided to spend the hurricane at his grandfather’s home in Princeton. Built in 1923, it had been sturdy enough to weather other fierce hurricanes so Vick’s father figured they would be safe.

They were. But his grandfather’s house didn’t do as well. After the storm, “the only thing left of the house was the table we were under, three walls and comforters holding down the table,” he said.

The pine hammock with decades-old trees was cleaned out. The landscape looked like it had been blasted by a very powerful bomb.

“We could’ve been killed,” he said, shaking his head at the wonder of survival.

His father used a front-end loader to blaze a trail back to their house, which was in surprisingly good shape. But his school, Princeton Christian, had been demolished and classes didn’t start up again until a month later, when portables were delivered. In the meantime he spent his days tagging along with his father in the fields, cleaning up and preparing for fall planting. He now remembers those days as a happy, carefree time, though he knows it couldn’t have been the same for his parents.

He hasn’t forgotten the lesson Hurricane Andrew taught him. “Respect,” he said. “Respect of nature. That’s the biggest lesson.”

For others, Andrew taught something different: preparation. Jenny del Campo Bethencourt didn’t pay much attention to her parents’ harried preparations the night before Andrew struck. She was 17 and slept through the first part of the storm. But now as an adult, working in her brother’s insurance agency, she spends her time telling people to prepare for natural disasters. She’s seen the damage they can cause, first hand.

Recounting how her Redland home was destroyed, she explains to clients how fortunate her parents were to have homeowners’ insurance to rebuild. Without it, she’s not sure what might have happened to the family.

“Some people listen, but it was so long ago that a lot of them don’t pay attention,” she said. “They think it’ll never happen again.”

For those who do listen, she describes how, when the roof tiles began to peel off about 1:30 a.m., she ran to her parents’ bedroom — at the same time her two brothers bolted from their own rooms. Within minutes the front door blew open and the sliding glass bedroom door popped.

Shrieking with fear, they ran into the hall, then a bedroom, finally into a closet. Packed “like we were sweaty sardines,” Bethencourt began to feel claustrophobic. She gasped for air.

“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” she recalled.

As the last of the roof peeled away, her father shouted out in Spanish, “If we’re going to die, at least we’re going to die together.”

Morning came. The family survived. Only the outside walls of their house remained, though, their furniture wet and mangled, their possessions scattered. but Bethencourt said she never mourned the clothes, toys and other possessions she lost.

“You’re so grateful that you’re alive that you don’t care,” she said. “You just buy whatever you need.”

But the recovery wasn’t as easy as a store purchase. As the family moved from a relative’s house to a cramped apartment, Bethencourt began suffering from blackouts and panic attacks. One day at school, ready to take a quiz, she couldn’t remember her name.

Her parents took her to a slew of doctors. Various tests and scans followed. The conclusion: There was no physical reason for her reactions.

Over time the panic attacks subsided. She began to sleep better. She could concentrate. The family settled back into their rebuilt home. Bethencourt graduated from high school, married, had a son.

She admits that whenever a hurricane threatens South Florida, she grows anxious and checks to make sure her family is prepared: “As a parent, I know now what my own parents must have gone through thinking they couldn’t protect us.”

For a young Andrew Hagen, the storm sparked a permanent fascination with severe weather. He was 6 when the storm hit and remembers huddling in the hallway with his family listening to meteorologist Bryan Norcross. For Hagen, the calm voice of the weatherman was his introduction to what would become his career.

The Hagens’ Kendall home sustained minimal damage, but Hagen will never forget walking outside their neighborhood to survey the destruction. “I saw the expression my dad’s face and I knew it was bad,” he recalls.

The hurricane’s ferocity fascinated Hagen. By the time he was 7, he was telling people he wanted to be a weatherman. During hurricane season, he tacked tracking maps on his bedroom wall and watched The Weather Channel. As a teenager, in the summer of 2001, he eventually scored an internship with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Virginia Key. “I definitely knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “I thought hurricanes were really neat.”

The fascination has never waned. He became enamored of the small, closely-knit community of meteorologists — “I always thought there was something special about them” — and as an undergraduate at Penn State he worked for the campus weather service and then received his master’s in meteorology from the University of Miami.

Now a tropical meteorologist and hurricane forecaster at ImpactWeather, a private weather forecasting company in Houston, he believes he began his job training 20 years ago, on August 24.

Matthew Shpiner preaches the gospel of preparedness, something he first learned 20 year ago, courtesy of Andrew.

He was 6 at the time but remembers how his parents rushed back from vacation, collected the outdoor furniture, shuttered their windows and made sure they had plenty of water and supplies. A neighbor, on the other hand, sat in a lawn chair, pretending Hurricane Andrew would be a mere nuisance, one more miss. It wasn’t, of course. Shpiner’s house survived the battering relatively well, but some of their neighbors’ homes didn’t.

When the hurricane had passed, Shpiner and his family climbed out a side door. The screened patio “looked like Superman had used it as personal erector set.” The silence was eerie. “It was super quiet. You couldn’t hear a bird chirp or a car running. Nothing.”

Today Shpiner is the emergency preparedness manager at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key.

“The lifelong lesson of Andrew for me was the value and importance of preparedness,” he says.

Shpiner, like so many kids his age, was fascinated with the National Guard that came through his neighborhood. As a teen, he would join the Police Explorers. In college at UM, he and a friend founded a campus chapter of a disaster preparedness program.. As a graduate student at Northeastern University, he helped work on an evacuation plan for Boston’s Logan Airport, followed by an internship with Miami-Dade’s Department of Emergency Management.

The recurring theme: “You want the community to return to some semblance of normal as quickly as possible, and to be able to do that you have to prepare for everything before something happens,” he says.

Working for UM, one of the area’s largest employers, has made him even more aware of how critical personal preparation can be.

“I’m not telling people to do this because I read it in a book,” he says. “I’m telling them because I lived through it.”

Miami Herald reporter Curtis Morgan contributed to this report.

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