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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
September 2017

Downtown and Andrew, 25 Years Later

SPix_EleazarMelendez_9-17ome 25 miles removed from where Hurricane Andrew made its devastating landfall, a public art project makes a hopeful statement on the history of Miami following that defining disaster.

At three downtown Metromover stations, artist Buster Simpson has sculpted blocky platform benches made of polished terrazzo, decorating the base of the structures by grafting debris from buildings destroyed in that catastrophe. The detritus is inlaid in a pattern that suggests mangrove roots, a subtle nod to the rebirth of Miami in the wake of the hurricane.

Some of the most powerful and notable stories from Hurricane Andrew, which have been retold as Floridians marked the 25 years that have passed since the storm hit in late August 1992, naturally come from the areas most devastated by it around Homestead, Kendall, and South Dade. Those are the stories of entire subdivisions razed; of an Air Force base leveled not by a foreign enemy, but by the wrath of nature; of exotic animals released from their cages to roam through the destruction.

The images that made it to the media at the time and have now made it into the history books, including those of National Guardsmen guarding gutted bank buildings, and of flamingos huddling in the safety of a restroom at the county’s zoo, similarly came through the lenses of photographers who rode out the storm in those hard-hit places.

Yet while it wasn’t similarly destroyed by the worst of Hurricane Andrew, downtown Miami was the site of one of the defining stories of that terrible time.

In the early hours of the morning of August 24, 1992, a small group of broadcasters jury-rigged a camera and lighting inside the storage room of Channel 4’s downtown Miami studio.

After nervously noting on air that the wind gusts outside were loud enough to suggest that their studio building’s integrity could be at stake, the newscasters laid a sleeping bag across a cement step that would serve as their impromptu news desk. Framed not by the usual background of NBC’s peacock, but by a mess of boxes of surplus camera cables, they kept calling the news from their emergency storm bunker.

In extraordinary footage of the day, the various reporters have an awkward debate about how to keep the broadcast going if backup power were to go out, or if their master control room were to be compromised by the cyclone. At one point, the reporters see the image of the radar that’s been tracking the storm go dead, correctly guessing the hurricane has destroyed the tracking tower that was providing that information.

Led by weatherman Bryan Norcross, who kept an otherworldly calm through a marathon 23-hour broadcast, even when his co-anchors betrayed worry or despair, the huddled news crew took calls from Floridians dialing from inside bathrooms or closets. With the three other local networks knocked out by the storm, Norcross and his team enjoyed an accidental monopoly on the airwaves. Callers asked the reporters how to remain safe inside homes in South Dade where roofs had caved in or windows were blown out.

“Boy, we can hear the sound out there now, can’t we?” Norcross said on air, interrupting a phone interview with the director of the National Hurricane Center, who had similarly noted that the building in Coral Gables was shaking from the strength of the storm.

Turning to his audience, Norcross serenely pleaded: “Do not think that you are in any way safe. If you have not hunkered down and got that mattress over you, friends, this is the time to do it. Get to that interior closet, get a mattress over your head, get your family in there, and just wait this thing out.”

Across South Florida, people heard those terrifying instructions through a simultaneous transmission on FM radio. Some who followed them would later swear that the broadcast saved their lives. Norcross was lauded for staying on air nearly one full day, and for talking to South Floridians with an even tone that reassured them during the worst natural disaster they had ever lived through.

In a fitting recognition of his place in many people’s memory of the storm, Norcross was invited to curate an exhibit currently on display at HistoryMiami Museum that looks back at Hurricane Andrew. (A small plug from someone who’s a huge fan of HistoryMiami: Go see the exhibit.) The historical remembrance sits just two and a half blocks from the site where that history-making broadcast took place, since demolished and absorbed into the footprint of downtown’s new federal courthouse.

It’s worth noting that Norcross, in a book he wrote about his experiences through Hurricane Andrew, has worried that the important role those newscasters played huddled in that concrete room in downtown Miami would be impossible to perform today.

In a situation where a storm knocked out wireless networks, and given the scarcity of home land lines in 2017, it would be difficult for newscasters to take calls from the public. It’s also not clear that as many people would have battery-powered radios to listen to the news as they did in 1992.

Could downtown serve once again as the setting for a calming beacon in the middle of another hurricane like Andrew?

As the nerve center of many metropolitan government command-and-control functions, and given that the county moved its emergency management office to Doral several years ago, downtown will certainly be central to Miami’s response, whenever the next “big one” comes.

But as a neighborhood that has mushroomed into a heavily residential area in the span of a few years, a place where most neighbors and most buildings have no memory of a major hurricane, there’s a question mark as to how well downtowners will weather such a storm.

The experience last year with Hurricane Matthew, a powerful and dangerous storm that came within a hair of slamming Miami as a devastating Category 4 hurricane before changing paths a few degrees and heading north, was not necessarily encouraging. While the storm brought only relatively weak wind gusts and rains, at least one neighbor downtown recklessly let his or her unsecured patio furniture become potentially deadly projectiles.

Similarly, while developers of the many projects going up in the urban core secured their cranes well before the storm, the amount of debris left at some construction sites would have been a problem in a more serious storm. A quarter century after a natural disaster that defined life in South Florida for years, perhaps the best we can hope is to remember the greatness that has existed here in the face of adversity.

 

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