Driving a Storm into Heart of Hurricane


WHEN big events happen, it's the small things you remember.

Like renting a car at Orlando airport.

My assignment was to cover the relief effort of Hurricane Andrew, one of the worst storms to hit Florida in decades.

Flights to Miami and West Palm Beach were canceled. The closest I could get was Orlando. I needed wheels. So what car did I pick for chasing a hurricane? Unwittingly, I chose a Geo Storm.

It didn't take long to spot the hurricane's impact. In Orlando, toll collectors were waving cars through the toll gates of Florida's Turnpike. the scenes got progressively more vivid as I drove south: the all-too-heavy patches of rain; uprooted trees; blown-down signs; broken windows; missing roofs; smashed houses.

If ever nature wanted to show general fury, it would pick the hurricane or the earthquake.

Yet, it's the little things I remember: driving over my first downed power line; watching a traffic light hang like a punching bag in the middle of an intersection; waiting in line at a gasoline station in Hialeah. Getting gas

I thought I had remembered everything: extra food, extra batteries. I had completely forgotten gas. So here I was, my needle sitting on empty, waiting in line at probably the only station open in Hialeah.

The station ran out of gas before I reached the pump. It is one thing to be running on fumes; it is quite another to do it while looking for stoplights that worked next to a gas station. (Stations need electric power to pump gas.)

It occurred to me during that harrowing drive northward that I was worrying about gas just hours after a destructive hurricane had swept through. But it's often that way. In the face of the biggest things, we remember the smallest details.

Forty-three miles later, I found an open station. By this time, it seemed strange not to have a long line of cars at the pump. I bought a gas can and filled it with an emergency gallon. I bought mixed nuts for extra rations. Hardly any restaurants were open. Even the 24-hour Denny's restaurant was closed, the hand-lettered sign said, "due to hurricane." Taking care of basic needs

As perilous as hurricanes are, surviving their aftermath is a lot like traveling overseas. Basic needs become the most important questions: What's for dinner? When can I shower? Is there a telephone here?

Radio talk-show hosts in Miami spoke with callers who could tell them where ice and gasoline were being sold. Both items were in short supply.

Then there was lodging. South Florida residents had more than 200 emergency shelters to choose from. All I wanted was a motel room with electric power and a working phone. But so many people had temporarily left their homes that all the rooms were taken, wherever I tried. So I wrote my story in a hotel lobby then headed out to the Geo. I wanted some rest.

In no way do my small indignities compare with what south Florida residents went through. They survived a powerful hurricane. I just slept in a Storm.

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