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Looking back on Andrew

BY SUSAN KIM | MIAMI | August 21, 2002

"They said how they realized as they surveyed the wreckage of their homes that material things didn't matter."

—Rev. Laurie Kraus

A few days after Hurricane Andrew struck, a 7-year-old girl asked her father why God let it happen.

Andrew's 160-mph winds had ripped the roof from the Mexican family's home while they huddled in a stairwell.

Edgar, the girl's father, found himself wanting to defend God. "I didn't want her to think badly of God but I had no words," he said.

"I finally said 'I don't understand why this happened. But sometimes you have to lose the roof to see the sky.' "

Ten years later, many people see Hurricane Andrew as a defining event that blew the roof off disaster response so those in the business of helping disaster survivors could finally see the bigger picture.

In many ways, Andrew was the 9/11 of the year 1992. On Aug. 24, the storm blew through South Florida with the force of a bomb. Nine out of every 10 homes in the region were damaged, with 49,000 left uninhabitable. More than 180,000 people were left temporarily homeless and more than 100,000 people -- 28 percent of south Miami-Dade's population -- relocated.

Now Andrew is getting a second look from hurricane scientists as they confirmed Tuesday what many South Floridians have suspected for years: Andrew was a Category Five storm -- one of only three to strike the United States since 1900. Previous evidence had suggested that Andrew's highest winds touched 145 mph, making it a strong Category 4 hurricane.

"To those of us who viewed the damage right after the storm, to have it reclassified is a recognition of how bad it was," said the Rev. Larry Graham-Johnson. Now a pastor at the Vandalia Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C., Johnson was in South Florida when Andrew hit.

"This is almost an affirmation of what we've already known," he added. "It was easy to see the surface damage immediately after Andrew struck. But when you worked in the long-term, you also knew of the very deep damage done to the sense of community."

Andrew was such a defining event for many South Floridians that they can't help comparing it to 9/11. "It's interesting having been through a defining event like that, and to look at 9/11," said the Rev. Laurie Kraus, a colleague of Johnson's and a pastor at the Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami.

At a service Kraus conducted the Sunday after Andrew hit, she encouraged parishioners to express their thoughts. "People got up and said how, in the midst of crisis, they were held in the hands of God. They said how they realized as they surveyed the wreckage of their homes that material things didn't matter."

Then, Kraus said, they prayed they'd remember years from now how they'd felt that day as they gathered in faith to overcome adversity.

Today, she said, "If we're going into a season of mass casualty, the faith community needs to get out there and set that tone. What we choose to remember either empowers us or disables us."

At least some memories from Hurricane Andrew have evolved into to vast improvements in disaster response across the country.

Lesli Remaly, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison, said Hurricane Andrew turned disaster response into a serious profession. "It heightened our awareness. We started to look at building codes as an issue, and emotional and spiritual care as essential components of disaster response," she said.

"It changed our understanding of a disaster's influence on a community."

Andrew was a turning point not just for South Florida but for the whole country, observed Gil Furst of Lutheran Disaster Response. "It was when FEMA got its first really negative response from the public," he remembered. "They just kind of botched it. Since then FEMA has grown and improved so greatly from that time of long lines and dealing with forms."

Andrew -- like 9/11 -- led to the realization that no one group could go it alone in terms of response.

"Andrew proved that faith-based groups and organizations could come together in an ecumenical way," said Johnson. "I saw government organizations, social service organizations, all kinds of different institutions coming together and asking how they could bring something to the table."

After Andrew struck -- and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- many people were inspired to better prepare for disasters. "Some volunteer work teams came down to Florida, and when we sent them back home we would tell them to look around their neighborhoods and find the smaller disaster -- and continue their work," said Johnson. "We had a tremendous outpouring of letters from people who had found the disasters and were addressing them."

A new wave of disaster preparedness has again taken hold of many people in the wake of 9/11, he said. "We humans can go about life and everything seems to be going fine for us so we pay no attention to potential hazards. Unfortunately it takes a disaster to spark awareness."

Sadly, some lessons learned from Andrew haven't taken hold, observed Bert Perry, Florida director for National Farm Workers Ministries. "After Andrew, the response for people who were non-English speaking and didn't pay a whole lot of taxes was unequal. It was very obvious from the beginning there was little cultural sensitivity to people."

In the wake of 9/11 the same inequitable response seemed to happen, said Perry. "I guess we're going to have to keep relearning it."

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