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Recalling the Death and Destruction from Hurricane Andrew

The Sunshine State is uniquely vulnerable as Florida’s peninsula and its panhandle are positioned adjacent to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, while its east coast is open to the Atlantic.

Hurricane Andrew
Joan Wallach, left, and her daughter Brenda, right, walk through the debris that was the Royal Palm Trailer Court in Homestead, Fla., Aug. 25, 1992, carrying the only possessions they could salvage from the trailer they lived in before Hurricane Andrew hit the South Florida city.
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
(TNS) - Marijke Browning still remembers the calm breath of Hurricane Andrew as its eye moved over her Homestead home nearly 30 years ago.

It was the final time she would spend with her daughter, Naomi. The 12-year-old animal lover who volunteered at the Miami zoo would become part Florida’s tragic hurricane history, which has seen nearly 500 lives lost in just the last 30 years.

Browning had prepared for the storm. Her family took precaution with extra supplies, and darkened their home with protective shutters.

The family took shelter in the bathroom. Browning’s husband Larry evaluated the damage outside during the temporary calm. The family trailer had been pushed into the neighbor’s fence. But outside of that, the family had been lucky. Above, Larry could see Andrew’s approaching cloud formation. He decided it would be safer on the opposite end of the house — Naomi’s bedroom.

The small bedroom only had one tiny window. Naomi sat on her bed next to her 17-year-old brother. She was wearing oversized clothing, typical of the tomboy she was. Her normal carefree attitude was subdued as Andrew’s winds began howling once again. Her brother put an arm around her.

Then, a steel beam fell through the roof, directly hitting Naomi.

“She was gone, instantly,” Browning said. “It was unreal. Everything was unreal.”

The beam had blown from a neighbor’s carport, and struck Naomi’s head, while injuring her brother in the process. The beam had been carried by what Browning suspects was one of the many tornadoes spawned during the storm.

“There was only a single drop of blood,” Browning recalled. “I didn’t believe it.”

With no time to grieve, she, Larry and their son ran for the bathroom. They waited there until the storm finally passed.

Browning remembers that day clearly. It’s one of the many reasons she advises everyone to never think lightly of hurricane season.

“You never know what can happen,” Browning said.

Hurricanes and death by the numbers

There have been 77 tropical events that have either struck or affected Florida since 1991, of which 30 have caused fatalities in the state.

The Sunshine State is uniquely vulnerable as Florida’s peninsula and its panhandle are positioned adjacent to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, while its east coast is open to the Atlantic.

As a result, hurricane season can be a deadly time of the year.

But how deadly has it been?

Since 1991, 466 Floridians have been either killed directly or indirectly by tropical-storm-related activity, the Orlando Sentinel found in the records of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Naomi’s case isn’t unheard of — Floridians hit by objects turned projectiles — but research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found the most dangerous weapon of a hurricane is actually the water. The major player responsible for those deaths was storm surge, which accounted for 49% of hurricane-related deaths nationally. NOAA’s analysis also found that more than half of deaths associated with water were vehicle-related.

While those numbers are lower in Florida, there’s at least 54 cases directly associated with drowning listed as the probable cause of death in the last 30 years, making it one of the chief reasons people die during or after a storm in the state.

During Hurricane Andrew, records show the most common cause of death directly associated with the storm was “blunt force,” accounting for seven of the 15 deaths directly attributed to the storm.The term was either used to describe cases such as Naomi who were hit by airborne objects or those who were in trailers that were lifted and injured.

In the last three decades, “blunt force” was also the most common probable cause among those indirectly killed by tropical activity — especially incidents involving those falling off ladders while clearing debris after a storm passed. At least 55 cases of “blunt force” were associated with falling.

Going back further into Florida’s history of hurricane-related deaths is difficult because of limits in record-keeping systems. The number of total deaths could be higher, but Florida’s record keeping of tropical-storm related fatalities was not a uniform system until 2004. Prior to that season, record keeping was at times not computational. For example, the 2002 fatality report for Tropical Storm Hanna is a scanned image of three deaths handwritten on computer paper.

Florida’s records improved uniformly after the 2004 hurricane season, which incidentally proved to be Florida’s deadliest year in hurricane-related fatalities. In the 2004 season 143 people lost their lives because of the barrage of hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

Polk County in particular was especially struck hard as three of those storms — Charley, Frances and Jeanne — all crossed over the same area just six weeks apart. The three storms caused $33 billion of damages to Florida and killed 14 people from that county alone. Orange County lost eight people as a result of the season.

However, nothing compares to Florida’s deadliest storm in the last 30 years; 2017′s Hurricane Irma. The then Category 3 storm ripped a northbound path from the Keys all the way to Georgia. Irma was directly responsible for 10 deaths, but many more fell in its wake. A total of 84 lives were lost. Florida reports show a fatal combination of falls from ladders while making preparations for Irma’s arrival, vehicle accidents during a power outage, carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, chainsaw accidents, and electrocutions as the primary reasons for death. Perhaps most egregious was in Broward County where 14 seniors died in one nursing home because of overheating when air conditioners failed as power faltered. Those deaths are listed as “homicide” under probable manner of death. It is the only hurricane report in all of Florida’s 30 years of hurricane death records to use the term “homicide” for deaths associated with the storm.

Irma records also show that 2017 was the worst year associated with deaths attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from generators placed inside a dwelling . Records indicate there were 24 incidents.

Death by carbon monoxide poisoning were prevalent in 2004 and 2005 as well, when Floridians were without power on numerous occasions — a total of 17 fatalities across the two years that also saw Hurricane Wilma rip across South Florida.

Remembering Andrew and Naomi

Hurricane Andrew’s ferocity, though, has over the years made it seem like like Florida’s worst storm ever, nearly wiping the city of Homestead off the map and leaving its scar over the tip of the peninsula. Former Miami-Dade Fire Chief Dave Downey remembers the event exceptionally well.

At the time, Downey was a firefighter working in north Miami-Dade. His wife had just given birth to their second daughter. And he really wanted to go home.

It was Sunday, and Hurricane Andrew was forecast to arrive by morning.

“We had a huge amount of congestion at the nearby Home Depot,” he said. “We were called to assist as people were waiting in line for supplies, and passing out due to the heat.”

Things heated up even more when Downey and his team responded to a two-story restaurant fire at around midnight near near Biscayne Boulevard. About 10 trucks had arrived from different territories outside of Dade to douse the flames. As crews worked to put them out, Andrew’s winds began picking up. One of the fire chiefs at the incident told crews to abandon the fire and head back to their stations, Downey said.

“If the winds got too high we couldn’t even travel in trucks on the road. So, we were told to leave,” he said. “We could see blue flashes in the distance on the way back from all the transformers blowing out.”

It was the beginning of a very long shift. During the night, Downey’s team was called to repair radio equipment taken out by Andrew. The instruments were on top of the Jumbotron in what is now known as Hard Rock Stadium — which stands higher than 350 feet. Winds raced by at dangerous speeds, with gusts reported in some places as high as 174 mph. The crew carefully moved in the dark, through the rain and wind to repair the radio equipment, which would be instrumental in recovery the following morning.

“I remember [on top of the stadium] looking out and just seeing black. It was the darkest I’ve ever seen anything,” he said.

When Andrew passed, Downey’s crew ran calls from Monday morning to Tuesday morning. The team tackled gas leaks and treated residents with chest pain. Incidentally, among those who died following Hurricane Andrew, five were due to heart-related issues exacerbated by the stress of the storm.

Pictures of the wreckage depict thousands of leveled buildings, including the homes of firefighters responding to the emergencies in Andrew’s wake. There were about 200 to 250 firefighters whose homes were destroyed, Downey said. In total, there were 125,000 homes destroyed by the storm causing $27 billion in damages, according to the NOAA. It also left 160,000 people homeless in Miami-Dade County.

“I remember thinking how alone we felt. Like, up north [ Fort Lauderdale] you’d have no idea it was this bad. It was a lot of destruction. Nothing was there in some places,” he said. “It was just a mess.”

Downey became a leader on emergency response group Florida Task Force 1, and assisted in many disasters around the country including New York after 9/11 and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

But Andrew remains a disaster frozen in his mind, he said.

It’s a painful memory for Marijke Browning that’s never fully healed following Naomi’s death.

“I talk about it because I don’t want people to forget,” she said. “I want people to remember what happened. They need to take hurricanes seriously. We were prepared and the worst still happened. Anything can happen.”

Her daughter Naomi is not forgotten in Miami, though. As an animal lover and volunteer at the zoo, there’s a memorial plaque of Naomi over the tiger exhibit to this day.

“This exhibit is dedicated to Naomi Browning,” the sign reads framed next to a picture of the young girl. “During the storm, Naomi said to her mother ‘I’m worried about the animals at the zoo.’ Sadly she lost her life that night, but this sign serves as Naomi’s legacy to her love for animals.”

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