It was August, 1992. Hurricane Andrew was headed toward South Florida. At the time, my husband and I belonged to ham radio organizations ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service).
Ham radio operators provide a number of services when disasters occur, especially when normal communications are interrupted. In addition, to avoid jamming critical transmissions among emergency police, fire, and medical services, ham radio is a separate way for Red Cross shelter personnel to report to emergency management officials through volunteers. Bill and I were on the list, and we were called to work as soon as the decision was made to open the shelters.
We hurried to install the metal storm shutters at our home, grabbed our two teenagers, our radio and equipment, and all the supplies we could think of to take with us, locked up the house, and headed for the nearby high school, our assigned base.
It was our first time. We’d been through the basic training and had a checklist, but we weren’t sure what to expect from the other folks involved. We did believe we’d be placed fairly close to the Red Cross shelter manager. And the food and water. And people. It didn’t work out that way.
Our radio base was set up in the darkest corner of the darkest area of the school, a small office off the boys’ locker room. The whole area reeked of sweaty socks and gym shoes. While one of us was on the radio, another had to run back and forth to the shelter manager with reports and requests. The kids camped out on the floor. Bill and I were awake almost all night. We couldn’t hear much of the storm, but we caught glimpses of the storm’s progress on television until the power went out. It seemed to be headed toward our town, Boca Raton.
There was dim emergency lighting in most of the school, but not in the locker room area. We operated by the lights from our big flashlight. All night long, taking turns, we reported in to emergency management personnel, gave people counts, took messages for the Red Cross team and crossed the dark, dark rooms and walked long hallways to reach the shelter area in the gym. We took little naps when we could.
There are a lot of bad things about hurricanes. They take a long time to form, and a long time to get where they’re going. Plenty of time to worry. Panic, even. Sometimes they get close to landfall, and then get confused. They wobble, wander around in a circle, change course, and then slam into land miles away from the projected target. Hurricane Andrew veered a bit to the south, so did not hit Boca Raton head on. Other than a few small limbs and leaves on the ground, our house was fine.
Homestead, south of Miami, took the brunt of this hurricane. Parts of that town were leveled. You can see some of the damage photos if you follow the Hurricane Andrew link above. If you like the meteorological details, they’re at that same site.
I kept thinking about the Florida hurricane experiences as I sat in my closet in Northern Colorado yesterday, wondering if I’d escaped all that hurricane anxiety only to get blindsided by a tornado. At least my little closet didn’t smell like sweaty socks.