By Diane Lacey Allen, published on November 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
AFTER THE STORM
HURRICANE ANDREW, A REPORTER'S DISPATCH: THE STORY OF THREE FAMILIES
In the wake of the storm, how are people doing psychologically?
When Hurricane Andrew ripped into southern Florida with Force 5 ferocity in the early hours of August 24, Diane Lacey Allen was already on her way to cover the devastation 250 miles south of her central Florida home. A senior writer for The Ledger in Lakeland, part of the New York Times newspaper chain, she had kissed her husband and young sons goodbye to report for duty. She was one of a three-person team assigned to bring the story home.
What began as a tale of destruction has become a much larger story, Allen reports. Houses, possessions, livelihoods, whole communities fell to the wind in the flat stretch south from Miami to the Everglades, where a mobile home looks like a high rise. The many folks who were barely scratching out a life before the storm lost just about everything. Perhaps even hope, although it's too early to tell; shock still abounds.
What the storm didn't take, its aftermath has laid siege to. For many, dignity has succumbed to the handouts-of necessities from Gatorade to used underwear on which they now subsist in muddy, mildew-ridden tent cities that may wind up sheltering them for years to come. "No matter what direction their lives were headed, they were thrown into reverse," Allen tells us. "It has gone beyond the calculators of insurance adjusters. It is now about the human condition and how people cope with a modern-day Armageddon."
When PSYCHOLOGY TODAY caught up with Allen, she was immersed in three sets of lives that tell as much about loss as there is to tell. Her dispatch follows.
The stories poured out from people that first day. But no matter how dramatic the experience, the descriptions almost always seemed to include a disclaimer.
"I'd ask people what was left of their homes and they'd tell me," says Barbara Barham, a psychiatric nurse therapist from South Carolina working as a postAndrew volunteer. "But with so many there was almost a click-they'd realize they were complaining. Then they'd immediately say, 'But things could have been so much worse. So many people had it far worse' 'They felt guilty acknowledging their losses because they were alive. They were trying to be positive." They could not yet take in the magnitude of their loss.
About 250,000 people were displaced by Hurricane Andrew. Some fled north, filling hotels along the way. Those who were able to patch their homes put tarpaper and plastic Band-Aids on their roofs and dried out the mess. Those who were left with no place to go made their way to one of several tent cities, the biggest of which is in Homestead, on the grounds of what, before Andrew, was Harris Field, an Air Force base. It will not be returned to active duty.
"What people don't understand," explains Patricia Regester, director of the Mental Health Association of Dade County, "is we've got years and years of rebuilding people. Not just the buildings. We've got to deal with the people damage. We've got to put the people back together, not just the infrastructure.'
Weeks after the storm, people were still telling their Andrew stories, but the wild look in their eyes was gone, replaced by weariness. They were beaten down by uninhabitable housing, unimaginable destruction, and the inability to do simple things, like go to the dry cleaners or out to pizza.
April Counts kept waiting to hear where the hurricane shelters were. The announcement never came. Later she learned there were none. She was supposed to have evacuated her home in Homestead, a small agricultural city a half hour's drive south of Miami on US 1.
The 30-year-old divorcee stayed with the disabled veteran she has lived with, platonically, and cared for while going to school. It was too late to leave when Andrew began banging the $2,500 trailer. When the trailer started blowing apart, she got out, helping her friend to the car outside. They crunched down in the back seat of her '85 Oldsmobile.
A half hour later everything was gone. Except the car. Her greatest fear was a tree might fall and crush it.
She's resolved she had no control over the hurricane. She doesn't even think anyone could have stopped the looters who took first her sewing machine, then her vacuum cleaner. That's not to say it hasn't hurt. She felt violated. "Very angry, extremely angry. You've already lost what you had. And they steal what you have left.' Counts remains a firm believer that there's good and bad. She has faith in humanity. Tent city is here in Homestead, people are trying to help. "Even though at times it's irritating, I'm just thankful to have a place to sleep and a place to eat and a place to get my thoughts together."
"I think I'm more fortunate than others because I have a car," she says, voicing the stoic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps disclaimer. She goes from social-service center to social-service center trying to find what aid is available.
Some days she doesn't try to do anything because it's just too stressful to stand in line, fill out paperwork, and wonder when the assistance is going to come.
She isn't sleeping well, tossing and turning, pondering "where am I going to go, what am I going to do. But she "can't afford the luxury of a negative thought. If I allow this disaster to destroy me, then there won't be any need for me to go on," she says of a life that's been going pretty much downhill since her divorce.
Being all by herself doesn't help. "If you're a single person, it's harder to get anybody to be concerned:' she says. "If you're an employable adult, social services generally don't deal with you. You've got to have a family and you've got to have kids. Single people are expected to weather this."
Marines are now her surrogate family. She takes the time to talk with them, admires how they don't complain even when tent city residents treat them like busboys. It irritates her that people who come to this refuge have the audacity to complain that the water is too hot or too cold. "This is not a hotel," she snaps. Nerves are frayed. The civilities of life sometimes seem as though they have been left at home in the rubble.
The newspaper is her link to the community; pages hold lists of services, and columns try to put friends and neighbors in touch.
Motivation worries Counts. There is no one to push her.
"I wish I could plug in my hair dryer," Counts says. Conveniences. Freedom. She wants them back. "Oh, honey," she says. "It ain't no picnic. You go up to get a shower and men come to you and whistle at you or talk to you. I'm not interested. This is not a party. This is serious business.'
It is pointed out that sex occurs even during wartime. "I'd like to know how they could be relaxed enough to enjoy it. I haven't even thought about that since I've been here, especially when you don't even have a bed" She has a cot.
And she could use a pair of boots. "The only thing I hate is the mud," she says, "I don't mind the rain. In fact, it's kind of peaceful."
Counts grew up in Homestead. She didn't want to leave it. "I was the homecoming queen," she beams. "Eighty-eight girls ran for homecoming queen." She didn't go to college, wishes she had. "I probably wouldn't be here."
Where she wants to be next is Nashville. She's a country singer. She's tried to make it there before, about 10 times, and wants to give it another go. Counts sticks on the long, dirty-blond hairpiece she wears when she sings. She fluffs it and smiles. She plans to write a song about her hurricane ordeal. She just wants an idea of where life will lead before she starts it.
But when she does, it might go something like this: "How does it feel to have your world blown away....'
Becky and Bill Spillers know the tune. They've been living with nature's threat to their livelihood for years.
"We started this thing 18 years ago and now we're going to start it all over again," Becky Spillers says. "We started it with a master's in horticulture, and ignorance. The Spillers had 10 acres of nursery and 11 acres of lime trees-and no crop insurance.
The Homestead area is known for its nurseries and what used to be the Homestead Air Force Base. Stung by a pesticide that betrayed farmers and damaged plants, the area already faced recovery from its man-made nightmare, the so-called Benlate disaster.
"This was going to be a very good year for a lot of the nurseries," Becky says, "Everybody said if the Benlate doesn't get you, then we'll get a hurricane. We've had it.'
Spillers, 47, calls herself a pessimist, her 49-year-old husband, Bin, an optimist. A workaholic. A man with no time for interviews. She is frank. Her voice sure and calm, almost too calm for a woman whose business was tossed to the wind. "He thinks this is fun," Spillers says of her husband. "A big camping trip, a challenge."
By South Dade standards, the Spillers came out pretty good. Their house, a mile from the nursery in the Redlands, held fast. They stayed in the house. The radio kept them sane,
Their van looks as if it was rolled down a mountainside. She thinks it ironic that the vehicle was hit by a lime tree. They found one in the engine. "It frustrates the hell out of me. They won't come and get it," she says. "I want that car out of here."
When the storm stopped, they found a porto-john in the middle of the mess. "It blew in and landed upright, just like you could walk in and use it.' When its owner went cruising to retrieve his 250 missing toilets, she considered holding it for ransom. Her salty wit is sustaining.
When a house alarm went off, she and her husband watched as a woman threw rocks at it in an attempt to get it to stop. "Finally, my neighbor, a fireman, went over and shot it out," she reports. "I highly recommend living near either a policeman or fireman."
These are people with their lives planted firmly in their own soil. She cried once. Sat down and let it out. Then she went on. She says she doesn't feel depressed. But she finds it difficult to talk to people who have been hit hard by the storm. They're depressed, she says.
Her 13-year-old daughter dealt with the aftermath for a week. Then she "fell apart' and went to stay with relatives. Spillers makes a gallant search for the silver lining. "We cat by candlelight," she says.
"Nothing had to be done to get my head set," says Bill Spillers, sitting on his tractor. "I knew what to do: you've got to build a shade house and you've got to water plants. There wasn't any psychological barrier, it was a physical limitation."
"I personally feel a hurricane is a man's sport, that's my theory. I'm going to write a paper on it'" Becky Spillers says, "because they have so much fun. They love those tractors. They love those chain saws. They love being out there doing those manly things."
There are adjustments to be made. "It's really hard to accept gifts or people giving you money. We have a hard time accepting the face that we're disaster victims. Because you're so used to what you have, and you still have most of it. It's really hard to accept that you really are unemployed and have no income."
"It will eventually be normal," says Bill Spillers. "And it will be different. And each individual will become normal at a different time. I don't know how to predict when it will be normal for me."
ANDREW LEFT VALERIE VERNON WITH little more than her dead mother's ring, a TV, and the family bible. In a matter of hours, her world went from marginal to desperate, and landed her, a 41 -year-old grandmother, under an olive-drab roof in Homestead's tent city, with her 20-year-old daughter Kysha Vernon, Kysha's three children aged one to four, and their father, 25-year-old Michael Eutsey.
By camp standards, they have a penthouse suite-two of their cots have mattresses, and the TV works. It was salvaged from their South Miami Heights home 30 minutes away, now enveloped in mildew and decay. Valerie bet against the dreaded Big One by letting her $32 a month renter's insurance lapse. Things were tight and the money was needed for the $39 monthly exterminator.
Before Andrew, Valerie lived with her daughter's family in a house that had three bedrooms, two baths. The rain came and the ceiling began to leak. Then it caved in. They ran into a bathroom. Two pin-size holes began to drip. They feared another collapse. They heard people yelling outside; neighbors were running for cover. They called for help from a neighbor. "He heard us," says Kysha. "But he wouldn't answer," says Valerie.
Nine people wound up huddling in one of the bathrooms; 11 took refuge in the other. When it was over, Valerie found her front entrance barred by a door that had blown off another house.
"The first thing we saw was looters.' Valerie reports. "There were guys running around with shopping carts loaded up with food. At first I thought they had children and were running scared", adds Kysha, her voice still filled with disbelief. "It was disgusting. How could they steal food? They didn't even have a place to put it." She pauses. "We lost everything."
Before Andrew, Valerie had a job she liked and had just been promoted; in theory, she still has the job, even though four of the five Subway stores she was to manage were crumpled. Kysha was working as a nursing assistant and studying to be a medical assistant, with a 92.5 grade point average. She has been laid off while the nursing center is being rebuilt. That could take more than six months and put her back on the welfare rolls. Eutsey worked for the school system as a porter. Their lives read like warning signs of a trauma checklist.
Valerie worked a few days at some other Subway stores. "Then I told them, 'Look, I can't-work like this.' You sign up for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assistance, you stand in line for hours. We went for disaster unemployment, we were there from 11 in the morning till 4:30 in the afternoon. I can't go to work in that kind of pressure and then be here to try and get up and wait for my time to take a shower. And there's only one car between us' "
The family depends on a 1978 Delta 88. The roof is hurting and most of the molding is missing. 'But it runs," she says-again, the disclaimer. Everything has a "but" when grief is reconciled.
They struggle for a sense of normalcy. There's a plank leading to their tent, an aquamarine bath rug near an opening that serves as a door. It seems both out of place and inviting-a welcome mat for a place they'd rather not be, where people live under military rule and eat their meals in mess tents, where privacy is a memory-the tent is shared with six men-and generators hum life into light bulbs without shades.
"The kids are cranky," says Valerie. "We're cranky." Gatorade goes into baby bottles. There's not a lot of milk- And while they have an insulated chest, ice melts fast in the humid Miami summers that end only on the calendar. The babies cling and climb. They run in the muck barefoot. AU the children have had fevers. They have had earaches and ringworm. They are prey for mosquitos, ants, sand bugs, and horse flies. "It's a stress test," says Kysha Vernon.
Two-year-old Branden and four-year-old Brittany now wet their beds often. They've been sucking their thumbs more. At least they have not woken up screaming in the night.
Others have not been so fortunate. Children who have heard over and over about the eye of the hurricane now have a new fear: they conjure a one-eyed monster that comes by night. In this land near the Everglades, the men seem especially listless. "It's tearing them apart to ask for anything," says Barham.
"It's a nightmare:' says Michael Eutsey. "I play with the kids. just go out there and do something, try not to think about it." He says he's not a religious guy, but he's been praying.
"I feel strange," he says, lying on his cot. "Like I don't believe it really happened ." Click. "I think it's going to get better, one day at a time.'
There are no bathrooms as such in the tent city. Clusters of Porta-Johns serve 1,300. Helping the children is a must. The seats are high and young bottoms tiny. Without someone to hold onto, it is frightening. It is routine to see men and women go down the line of toilets, opening and shutting them like Goldilocks in search of the perfect chair. Hand-washing water is not handy, hanging from punching-bag containers hundreds of feet away.
Valerie Vernon knows the rest of the world is watching. And can't possibly understand what it is like. "We've sat and watched television and seen disasters in other places. And you feel affected. You feel emotional about it. And then you get up and go about your life. You don't really get the impact of what is happening.
"I remember sitting and watching Hurricane Hugo on TV, but it never occurred to me what it actually does to people's lives' "
"I laugh at everything," Kysha Vernon says. "I feel if I laugh, I won't cry."
The family scrounges for information and news of something with four real walls. They talk of moving on if something doesn't come together soon. "I'd hate to go," says Valerie. "I've got a good job. I like South Dade. I was happy here. We were happy here. We were looking to maybe next year buying a house, trying to get a HUD home.
"We had plans. We made roots here.' Click. "Like a soda?," she offers. "A cold soda?"
PHOTO: Picture of Hurricane Andrew (SYGMA)
PHOTO: A distraught April Counts (right), plans to write a song about her ordeal in Hurricane Andrew (above) and take it to Nasheville. (CALVIN KNIGHT)
PHOTO: Valerie Vernon (opposite) cleans mud off her grandson Brandon. (CALVIN KNIGHT)
PHOTO: Bill Spiller (right) (CALVIN KNIGHT)
PHOTO: Becky Spiller (below) near her and husband Bill's nursery ruin. (CALVIN KNIGHT)