MIAMI — Ralph Henderson felt the foundation of his house shifting under his feet. It was the last week of August 1992, and Hurricane Andrew was pummeling South Florida with 165 mile per hour winds.
As Andrew’s winds and rains repeatedly slammed into his house, Henderson watched as his roof began to peel off.
Then suddenly the wind died. The eye of the hurricane was passing over Henderson’s home. When he went outside to survey the devastation, he had a hard time accepting what he saw. Across the road, a 24-foot moving truck was perched perfectly on the roof of what had been a U-Haul store.
“It was up there for months because no one could get it down,” Henderson, 52, told HuffPost.
Now Hurricane Irma, which has battered Caribbean islands with winds even stronger than Andrew’s, appears to be coming to crush the Florida coast. Henderson knows exactly what to expect.
“We know that pretty much everything is going to be destroyed,” Henderson said. “The trees are going to be gone, that fence is going to be gone. My boat might be gone. Anything left outside is going to be gone.”
Andrew killed 44 Floridians and caused an estimated $25 billion in damage across the state, where it flattened more than 25,000 homes and damaged at least 100,000 more. Few communities suffered worse than Country Walk, where the storm destroyed up to 90 percent of its 1,700 homes.
Today, the quaint town that sits about 25 miles southwest of Miami is home to 18,000 people ― more than twice the number who lived there when Andrew hit. Concrete and stucco single-family homes with rust-colored clay tile roofs line the Country Walk area’s leafy streets.
Florida’s “inadequate building codes” were responsible for the depth of Andrew’s damage to areas like Country Walk, a Dade County grand jury report stated in the months after the storm. The same report also said a “lack of adequate preparation by our community and our state” worsened the damage and noted that there was a “total lack of coordination that existed between the various disaster relief agencies after the hurricane had passed. No one was in charge. No one knew what to do. There was no plan.”
Much of that has changed in the quarter century since Andrew. Today, in the area of Country Walk that HuffPost visited, houses built after 1992 are required to have metal shutters for their windows, and Thursday afternoon, residents across the community labored in scorching heat and humidity to bolt the heavy covers in place. All around the neighborhood, the sounds of whirring drills and pounding hammers could be heard. Even with two or three people, it can take hours to bolt the hulking shutters in place, and their sharp edges pose their own dangers.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has warned residents of his state that Irma is “bigger, faster and stronger” than Andrew, and mandatory evacuation orders have gone in effect for the most vulnerable areas (no such order is in effect yet for Country Walk). There is no apparent lack of coordination or preparation for Irma, at least in the days before the storm.
But even those preparations might not be enough.
“Probably my roof is going to be gone, [and] this house is going to be destroyed,” Henderson said, pointing to a tall oak in his front yard that still stands slightly askew thanks to Hurricane Katrina, which briefly battered Florida before devastating the Gulf Coast. He is worried it will fall down this time, and knows the palm and olive trees along the street surely will. “They’ll all be gone,” he said. “Snatched up out of the ground.”
Kevin, a police officer who declined to give his last name, said he was in Homestead, Florida, during Andrew — another badly hit area. He, too, is preparing for Irma’s absolute worst.
“[Andrew] was nothing I’d ever been through before and never cared to go through again,” Kevin told HuffPost. “But here I am. It’s different this time because I have a family.”
He recalled staying at a friend’s house during the storm two decades ago and the moment panic hit as debris crashed through the front sliding-glass doors only to shoot out the back sliding-glass doors.
“Once the wind was in the house, that was it,” he said. “We went to every single room to try and save it. By the last room, my friend and I were holding the wall because the wall was breathing.”
Two dogs, a cat and 10 people huddled nervously inside. Pockets were left in the home where air-conditioning units had been “sucked out of the windows,” but somehow the last room never buckled.
Picking up everything and evacuating the area isn’t necessarily a simple solution. The cost alone has stopped many families from leaving. For Henderson, having pets makes the task even more difficult. And the storm is moving so quickly and is so large that residents feel as if they won’t be able to outrun it.
“We have water, we have gas in the car, hopefully we have enough food,” Juana Cubillas, 44, said from her home in Country Walk. “We put the shutters on, we just need to put the screws. We’re almost done. It’s not nice ― the shutters are ugly and rusted ― but it comes with the house and will help.”
Henderson recalled his own naivete when Andrew hit.
“I would say, ’There’s no way it can hit any harder,” he said. “And then it would hit harder. And harder. And harder.”
He expects Irma will be even worse.