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Remembering Hurricane Andrew: 20 Years Later

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    Eerie scene: trees on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus were either uprooted or lost their foliage.

    By Robert C. Jones Jr.

    With suitcases unpacked and “goodbyes” to parents the only formality remaining, most of the University of Miami’s incoming freshmen and returning students had already settled into the residential colleges by the time a late August Sunday of some 20 years ago rolled around. But the start to their school year would begin like no other.

    Just off the Miami coastline, Hurricane Andrew, packing 165-mile-per-hour winds, continued on a steady course toward southern Dade County, slamming into the area on August 24, 1992, like a locomotive going through cardboard.

    When the storm hit on the first day of freshman orientation, it was too late for anyone to leave the UM campus. As a result, some 5,000 students, parents, and visitors rode out the hurricane in UM’s residential colleges. Some parents even remained after the storm, helping to serve food in the cafeterias, recalls Pat Whitely, UM’s vice president for student affairs, who was associate director of residence halls back then.

    Whitely remembers Hurricane Andrew’s category 5 winds sounding like a freight train running through her office, where she would sleep for three weeks after the storm struck.

    Destructive force: Hurricane Andrew’s category 5 wind gusts toppled a light post in the Mahoney-Pearson Residential College parking lot, smashing the hood of an automobile.

    “It was exactly what they said it was going to look like,” she remembers. “We looked out the window, and the palm trees were leaning over, and the wind was howling, and you could hear it. We didn’t lose phone service, but we had no electricity for four or five days.”

    The powerful cyclone, the first named storm of the season, devastated the southern part of the county, destroying homes, knocking out power, and causing more than $30 billion in damages.

    Like most communities in the area, the Coral Gables campus didn’t escape Andrew’s destructive fury, suffering damage to the tune of almost $14 million in dozens of blown-out windows, uprooted trees, and damaged roofs.

    Classes had been scheduled to start on August 28. But the University pushed back the start of the fall semester by more than two weeks, sending students home and reimbursing their travel expenses.

    David Diamond, a broadcasting and political science major from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was student body president at the time.

    “After the storm, I was very eager to assist in any way that I could. But with safety being the key issue at the school, the top priority was to evacuate the students, including me, in order to secure and repair the campus,” recalls Diamond, who is now a management consultant. “I was able to get a flight from Miami to Tampa, then I drove to my home.

    The post-Hurricane Andrew issue of UM’s faculty and staff newsletter, Veritas. Courtesy of University Archives at the Richter Library.

    “It was on the drive from Coral Gables to the airport that I truly saw the amount of devastation that hit Miami,” Diamond continued. “Prior to that ride to the airport, I was as angry as a 20-year-old kid could be at the University’s decision to ‘kick me out.’ After all, I was the student body president. But after that ride, I understood exactly what the greater community was dealing with. And in retrospect, it was the right decision.”

    UM reopened on September 14. But it was still a campus community in pain. More than 400 employees either lost or suffered extensive damage to their homes.

    “We overcame through [then-President Tad] Foote’s and [former] Provost Luis Glaser’s leadership. They convened a group of leaders every morning at 10 a.m. at the law school, and problems were identified and solved on the spot,” Whitely said, recalling that University leaders identified a need for counseling for students and employees and turned to the medical school’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences for help.

    “Everyone’s collective team effort helped us finish the semester,” said Whitely.

    Coming next: how one school responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, organizing a charrette and other efforts that would help heal a battered community.

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