It was August, 1992. I was with the first responder team assigned to assess A1A and the Fort Lauderdale Strip after Hurricane Andrew. I don’t remember what I was expecting to drive into, but I assure you I was not prepared for what I saw. A1A was buried in sand. Awestruck by the devastation, I was in disbelief that mother nature could do such damage. Boy was I young. That’s me in the Jeep photo on A1A the morning after. Days later I drove by twisted road signs on route to Homestead and witnessed what I thought would be burned into my mind forever. I took away lessons every engineer should learn before designing a house. I thought I had seen it all. There were to be many storms after.
What was different for me about Hurricane Wilma was that I actually experienced the storm’s devastating effects in real-time, in my own home. Hurricane Andrew’s real fury was miles south of where I was living. All those dozens of cyclical storm tests I witnessed with windows blowing in and out, they could never happen for real, could they? Like many, I didn’t put my storm shutters up because Wilma wasn’t going to be ‘that bad’. Mid-way through the storm, I had managed to move beds and furniture to cover windows for safety. Memories of Andrew’s devastation flashed before my eyes. With my engineering knowledge of what I was experiencing, it would only take one window break to create a ripple effect that could lead to a ‘partially enclosed’ structure condition and lift my entire roof off. Power was out for days, trees everywhere, roofs damaged, structures blown over. It’s one thing to tour storms after the fact, but to live through a real design event and fear your life brought yet another appreciation to my field of engineering. That is until I toured Hurricane Katrina Damage.
Living in New Orleans while obtaining my engineering degree there, I grew fond of the precious city. Learning of its rich culture and attending the Worlds Fair there in 1984,
there was never a question in my mind that the Big Easy would be so vulnerable. After Katrina, I rushed to offer my expertise as soon as entry was permitted. Just before the storm, I had volunteered to speak at a hurricane conference there which had been rescheduled. I arrived at one of the few open hotels and ordered breakfast before realizing just how bad things were there. The waitress took my breakfast order. “Is the orange juice fresh squeezed?” I asked. Her reply was one I will never forget. “Sir, we have orange juice”… I was scheduled to present to the original attendee list of few before the storm, which had after Katrina erupted into a major venue of hundreds. I saw myself on the ‘really big’ screen thinking this was something really important. I toured the affected areas during that visit. I again got out of my car and, standing next to people in haz-mat suits, took pictures. It didn’t take my storm experience to see storm damage, it was literally everywhere. I was standing what was under 10 feet of water just months before. ‘Now I’ve seen it all’ I thought. I was still relatively young.
Those events and other storms I’ve investigated over the years since have humbly granted me the title of ‘Expert Storm Damage Evaluator‘. I’ve arrived, I’ve finally seen it all. I’m not young anymore. And now there is Superstorm-Hurricane Sandy…
I’m flying to New York to tour buildings damaged in Rockaway Park tomorrow. I grew up in New York and still have family there who all ‘used to’ fear me moving to Florida because of all the Hurricanes. Don’t they know these wind events can occur far beyond Florida? They do now. I’ve been to these places as a child. And now I revisit them with a new ‘I’ve been here before’ feeling – the feelings of buried in sand, destroyed buildings, and under water, only this time all at once.
I’m sure there will be new memories of me getting out of the car and taking pictures. I again step into devastation far beyond what anyone there expected. I will feel their pain, and I will bring all my experience and that of my firm there to assist. And I will share my journey as I step back into my past, and into the future.