In the Eye of History
Chronicling Hurricane Andrew
Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr.
August 24, 2002 marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Andrew. Many faculty, students and alumni of the University of Miami were profoundly affected by the storm. In my own case, the storm not only blew through the neighborhood where I live near the university, but also through my life as a researcher and teacher.
On Monday, August 17, 1992 my wife, Asterie Baker Provenzo, and I were in Washington, D.C. working on an educational project with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. That was the day that Hurricane Andrew formed as a tropical storm. Two days later, and just a few hours before our flight back to Miami, the publication staff at the museum asked when we could get a revision of the manuscript we had been working on back to them. They wanted it by Monday the 24th. “No problem,” said Asterie, “unless Andrew becomes a hurricane.”
Describing the storm and its impact to someone who has not gone through this type of natural disaster is difficult. Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida early Monday morning, August 24, 1992. Winds were recorded at the National Hurricane Center, about a mile from our home, at 164 miles per hour—and then the wind gauge broke. Going through the storm was the most frightening and exhausting thing I have ever experienced.
Immediately following the storm, 1.4 million homes were left without electricity. At least thirty people were dead. Over 107,800 private homes were damaged or destroyed (49,000 of them uninhabitable). Over 1,600 public housing units were also damaged or destroyed. As a result, more than 250,000 people were left homeless. Damages were estimated at between $20 to $30 billion dollars. From a financial point of view, Hurricane Andrew was the most costly natural disaster in modern American history. From a psychological and social point of view, the storm was similarly unprecedented.
Almost immediately after the storm, I began informally interviewing people. For me, it was a way of coping, of trying to understand the enormity of what had happened. I also realized that it was an extraordinary opportunity—a moment to witness history. The project was continued as a collaborative effort with my graduate students and undergraduate honors students at the university during the 1992-93 school year. Nearly everyone who conducted interviews had lived through the immediate terror of the storm. Andrew had dramatically changed almost all of their lives. For them, too, this project seemed to be a way of coping.
Since coming to the university in 1976, I had conducted a wide range of oral history projects with my students. These included interviews with Cuban exile teachers, as well as studies of famous children’s authors and educational researchers who have settled in South Florida. The projects have resulted in a number of co-authored publications with my students in journals such as Cuban Studies/Estudios Cubanos and The Florida Reading Quarterly. For the Hurricane Andrew project I employed the same type of training techniques that I had used with students in earlier oral history projects. Essentially, each student conducted two interviews with subjects they selected. Often ,they spoke to relatives or friends. Some of the interviews were with specially selected individuals such as Bryan Norcross, the local TV weather reporter, or Bob Sheets, then the Director of the National Hurricane Center.
At the same time as I was working on this project, a colleague Sandra H. Fradd and I began a study of the impact of Hurricane Andrew on children and the public schools. This study was published as the book Hurricane Andrew, the Public Schools, and the Rebuilding of Community (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1995).
The selection of the people to be interviewed and the construction of an interview schedule for the Hurricane Andrew Oral History Project was a significant part of our weekly class sessions. Interview schedules were drafted, compared and critiqued—all of this took place while many of the students were actually in the rebuilding process and still very close to the terror of the storm and the massive destruction it had caused to the community.
Originally, I intended to put together a collected set of interviews. Each student's transcripts would be published privately, reproduced and distributed among researchers and interested parties, and would be filed in the University Archive as a permanent record. As the interviews began to come in, a number of things became evident. The first was that the data was much richer and told a much more comprehensive story than was originally anticipated. In addition, it became clear that while many of the interviews could stand by themselves, their real power emerged from when they were grouped, analyzed and compared as a collected body of work.
As the interviews were turned in we undertook extensive discussions in my classes concerning the meaning of the interviews and their relationship to one another. Over the Christmas break of 1992 I began to draft a larger chronology, or framework, not only using the interviews, but also newspaper accounts, magazine articles and government reports as well. These sources, in particular the articles describing the storm and its aftermath in the Miami Herald, eventually provided an invaluable resource for putting the interviews in context.
Work continued on the project in the spring. With the permission of my students, I decided to use the interviews to create a history of the storm and the rebuilding process from the perspective of people in the community. After reading an early draft, my wife and frequent co-author, Asterie Baker Provenzo, suggested that I try to weave the stories of the people my students and I had interviewed throughout the entire book. As this process evolved, Asterie became a co-author.
In the Eye of Hurricane Andrew is being published for the tenth anniversary of the storm by the University Press of Florida. The book includes the following chapters:
1. “It’s Going to be Very, Very Bad”
2. August 24, 1992
3. Coming Out After the Storm
4. Immediate Emergency Relief
5. The First Weeks
6. Rebuilding the Community
7. Life Will Never be the Same
We consider the book to be a collective and shared history. We list all of the students who participated in the project as co-authors and members of the Hurricane Andrew Oral History Research Project. A portion of the royalties for the book will be set aside to fund future research projects in the School of Education at the University of Miami.
In many respects, doing the project with my students was more difficult than if I had conducted all the interviews by myself. I am convinced, however, that doing the interviews alone would not have produced results as rich or representative of different perspectives in the community. Students came up with remarkable subjects to interview—people I would not have known or had access to. One of my African American students, for example, went down to the black neighborhood in Richmond Heights and recorded the following comment from an older member of the community:
The black people in Richmond Heights were real good to one another during this time. You know the white man didn't help us. It was the people down there that got out and walked from door to door, letting us know where to get food and stuff. The churches down there was real good about helping folk out. They fed us, provided shelter if you needed it, and gave you clothes if you didn't have any.
Comments such as this probably would not have been shared with me as an outsider.
It could be argued that creating an oral history of Hurricane Andrew with student researchers is not related to the work normally pursued in a graduate course on Teachers and American Society or in an introductory undergraduate honors School and Society course. Hurricane Andrew, however, represented a critical turning point in the history of the South Florida community. Although rapidly forgotten on the national level, its impact will be felt in this community for decades to come. It was important to try to understand the role of the storm in shaping the community and to reflect on the structural and social inequities that it brought to light: Why did poorer areas of the county take so much longer to recover than more well-to-do areas? What role did teachers, firefighters and police play in rebuilding the community? Who were the real leaders in the community in the days, weeks and months following the storm? These were all questions that students began to ask, and eventually answered as our interviews and their analysis progressed.
I am proud that my students' oral history project on Hurricane Andrew will probably stand as one the main records of the most traumatic event in the history of South Florida. I am proud that it reflects not only my interpretations and those of my wife Asterie, but it was also a part of a collective historical experience that included my university students as researchers.