Hurricane Andrew

What could be better than a trip to the Bahamas with your girlfriend? My family has a small house on Harbour Island, one of the family islands in the Bahamas. We planned a trip there in August of 1991. This was Lolly and my first trip together and we were pretty excited about it. To get there, you have to fly to Miami, and then transfer to a 10 seat propeller plane to Eluthera. The plane made a stop on Andros to pick up passengers and this guy got on with the worst B.O. ever. He funkified the whole plane. It was almost intolerable. Once we landed at Eluthera, you have to take a bus to the tip of the island, then a boat taxi across the strait to Harbour Island.

The care taker was expecting us, so the house was open, and she had put fresh flowers around to welcome us. It was a beautiful little three bedroom cottage with a porch and three sliding glass doors that make the front of the house one giant window. The living room and kitchen occupy the entire front half of the house with cathedral ceilings and a breakfast bar separating the kitchen. The yard is filled with banyan trees that provide shade and there is a picket fence overgrown with cactus. From the road, you can hardly tell that there is a house there at all. To get to the beach, you just go across the street and over the dunes about 100M. The sand is pure white and the water so blue it looks artificial.

We did the usual beach fun. We had brought snorkeling gear and spent time searching around the offshore reefs. In the evening, we would go to the marina bar and drink yellow birds and goombay smash. It was a truly relaxing vacation. I spend a day cleaning out the gutters and mowing the yard. The banyan trees have tendrils that hang down from the branches. Once they get to the ground it forms into a smaller trunk that support and stabilize the canopy of branches. These tendrils had grown all the way down the gutters and were forming trees inside the downspout.


The next day, we spent the afternoon with a couple we had met at the bar. They had a cottage on the other end of the island in the jungle right on the beach. There was a small motorboat, so we took it to the outer barrier reefs and did some spear fishing for yellow jack and spiny lobster. We saw just about every type of sea creature. Manta rays, barracuda, octopus, shark, dolphin, urchins, conch. We were able to catch some nice yellow jack and took them back for dinner. We spent the following morning combing the beach. When we went to the usual happy hour, the couple was there with suitcases. "Why are you packed, I thought you were staying the whole week?" "Haven't you heard, there is a hurricane bearing down on the Bahamas?"

That was the first we had heard about Hurricane Andrew. You would not have had any idea, because the weather had been perfect since we got there. We finished our drinks and went back to the house to listen to the radio. It was the first contact with the outside world since arriving. I got out the map and sure enough the hurricane was headed right for us. It was too late to get a plane out, because everything was full. We had no choice but to batten down the hatches and ride the storm out. In retrospect, I learned that you do whatever you can to get out of the way of a force of nature as big as a category 5 hurricane.

The instinctive thing to do was go to the store and buy plywood. While Lolly shopped, I went to the only lumber store on Harbour Island and managed to secure the last 8 pieces of Masonite available. I found Lolly at the piggly wiggly and she had a cart full of items. All that was left on the shelf was salt, a few cans of pumpkin, and beach toys. The place had been stripped clean. We spirited our stash back to the house and began preparing.

The Masonite was delivered and we covered as many windows and glass doors as we could. There was one sliding door in the front that couldn't be covered. All the windows had been taped and loose items secured. We got out candles and had our dinner while tracking the storm from radio updates. The beautiful morning had now turned to breezy unsettled cloud cover. Soon the wind was moving the branches and a light intermittent rain had started. Then the wind arrived. Next the electric and radio went out. You could see out the one remaining uncovered window. Leaves were flying around, then branches, then whole trees. It was getting pretty scary and the house was shaking so we move to one of the smaller bedrooms and huddled at the end of the bed. I would go out and check the inside of the house every 15 minutes or so.

As I opened the bedroom door to check on things I felt a sudden rush of wind and there were little white dingle balls on the floor. At first I thought it was hail, but on closer inspection, they were white Styrofoam balls like they use for filling on bean bag chairs. In my mind the question "where did these come from?" was working when I looked up and saw the whole roof lift up with a gust of wind and the entire front wall got sucked out and disappeared in the maelstrom. The whole living room was now a stage with the storm raging outside. The overhang on the porch acted like a wing in the wind and ripped the roof away from the wall. When it settled back down it buckled the walls out and began to sag down. I went back into the bedroom with Lolly and we gathered up a couple personal items and prepared to evacuate.


The winds abated a bit and I knew this must be the eye of the storm passing over. Within 5 minutes it was nearly calm and we made our way out of the house onto the front porch with the roof just barely high enough to walk under. The front yard had three feet of water, limbs, power lines and cactus parts floating around. I held her hand tightly as we made our way under and over the debris headed across the street to Ma Ruby's restaurant. Since it was cinder block construction, I thought this was our best bet. We pried some burglar bars back and crawled through the window. Her family was huddled in the center of the building and they were terrified as well. Within 15 minutes the eye passed and the storm immediately attained full intensity but in the other direction. We thought for sure it would rip the roof off the restaurant and we all huddled in the liquor closet for safety.

The winds slowly receded and by 9PM the storm had passed. Ma Ruby allowed us to stay in one of the undamaged cabanas for the night. In the morning we went out to asses the damage. Across the street, our house was destroyed. The roof had completely collapsed and I crawled into the wreckage to salvage the rest of our personal belongings. We would have survived in the room but the false ceiling was all over the floor and wind, water and debris was everywhere. The trees were stripped of all their foliage. We walked around the rest of the island and it looked like a war had been waged there. We made our way to the house that the couple was staying in. It was also a cinder block house and the roof was still on it, but the jungle was gone. There was not one thing left inside the house. All the beachfront windows had blown in and everything in the house including beds, refrigerator, couch and table had blown through the man door at the back and were scattered in the wreckage of the jungle.

Lolly and I were finally able to get to Eluthera and charter a plane to Grand Bahama Island. The only thing available was a 5 star hotel. We enjoyed ourselves on the beach and took a hobbie cat sailboat out to Fantasy Island. Once you know how to sail, you can sail just about anything.

That part of the Bahamas only suffered minor damage and we stayed for a day until Lolly was able to get on a plane back to the U.S. I went back to Harbour Island to meet up with Gram Siemer and Ed Siemer who had come down to help with the situation. When I got there Ed had propped up the roof around the kitchen and Gram was busy cleaning it up and putting things back into the cabinets that were leaning juxtapose in different directions. She had brought food and somehow got the local hardware store to deliver a pallet of charcoal and a grill. Ed and I sawed up the branches and hauled debris out to the road. The majestic banyan trees were decimated and the rest of the house was totaled. It is up on stilts with a steel framework supporting a thick plywood floor. The house was made from prefabricated panels. The original manufacturer guaranteed it for 160 MPH winds, Hurricane Andrew hit 195 MPH. We did the best we could to help Ma Ruby get here operation back in order. She had an old diesel generator set that looked like it was from the 50s. The fan belt broke and we made one out of bungee cords. Anything to get the beer cold again. We also fixed the broken pipes for her and got the trees off a couple cabanas. Ed asked her what was for dinner and she pointed to one of the chickens pecking around in the debris with a butcher knife she was sharpening. Man, that chicken sure was tasty.

The moral of this adventure is get out of the way. If you can't batten down and be flexible with your plan. When we were at the airport in Eluthera to go back home, there was a couple we talked too who stayed on the tip of the island. The storm surge flooded their beachfront home and they floated in the bedroom on the mattress just inches from the ceiling. If the tide had come up one more foot, they would have drowned in their own bedroom. Hurricanes are the strongest storms on earth. Once you are in it, there is no way out. Fortunately, Hurricane Andrew moved fast, and the whole thing was over within four hours.

andrew_01.jpg andrew_02.jpg