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Finding My Treasure

Text by: Jennifer Hunsaker

I grew up thinking Homestead, Florida was the sticks. A small city of 26,000 people sandwiched between Miami and the Florida keys, Homestead was the nation's leading supplier of winter vegetables until NAFTA was signed. (The North American Free Trade Agreement that made it difficult for farmers in South Florida to compete with less expensive produce prices in Mexico.) It was the kind of city that didn't have mega supermarkets or megaplex theaters. You filled prescriptions at the Royal Palm Drug Store where old timers sat at the lunch counter retelling old stories. There were only a few houses that dotted the landscape of 40-acre fields full of tomatoes in the winter and groundcover in the summer. Homestead residents were insulated from the hustle and bustle of Miami by a 30-mile buffer, and my parents loved being someplace where the pace matched their own small town upbringing.

Now, unless you live under a rock, you probably associate Florida with devastating hurricanes that brought destruction to all in their path. Truth be told, our family had a few near misses, but up until I was 14, I had never experienced the full wrath of one of nature's great, destructive powers.

I was at a barbeque the Saturday before I was going to start my freshman year of high school when I heard the "breaking news" that hurricane watches were being put into effect for a little storm called Andrew. Having grown up in South Florida, I was used to hurricane watches as biannual occurrences. A storm would get close, it would be a slow news day, and every news outlet would get up in arms about how this was going to be the storm. Everyone would board up their houses and buy the markets out of masking tape and milk, and the storm would either turn away from the Florida coast or fizzle out into a massive thunderstorm. But sitting at Sally Tippetts' house that summer, I had a gut feeling that this one would be different.

I went home that afternoon to find my dad in full "board-up" mode. Normally he wasn't one to panic about hurricanes, but I think he had the same feeling that I had. My oldest brother was working at the local nuclear power plant for a month and was staying with us while his very pregnant wife waited in South Carolina for his return. He and my father worked to bolt our steel shutters to the sides of our house, and then he and I went to the local "Farm Store" for some "Hurricane Party" supplies. We figured we needed the basic food groups — Doritos, Dr. Pepper, and Nutty Coconut ice cream.

On Sunday morning, my dad and brother "broke in" to our vacationing neighbors' home and started boarding up their place too. Little did we know that they were in their car, stuck in traffic, praying that they would make it home in time to prepare for the storm that seemed inevitable. That afternoon we got a phone call from the Tippetts family, who had moved to Homestead just months before, asking if they could ride out the storm with us. By Sunday night, we were all sitting in my living room waiting for the wind to start.

There are few times in our lives when we are completely, utterly, and truly helpless — when we are waiting for a baby to arrive, getting stuck in traffic in the middle of a bridge, or sitting through yet another company meeting on new business practices. But all of these pale in comparison to waiting for an inevitable, natural disaster. I'm not talking about the inevitable earthquake that will shake California loose from the rest of the United States. I'm not talking about the super tornado that will eventually wipe the entire middle states from the map. I'm talking about waiting for the mighty Mississippi to breach the levees or watching the approaching hurricane take aim at your home. Looking back years later, people ask if we were scared. At the time, we were too naïve to be scared. I felt completely, totally, and utterly helpless. I had no control over where this storm would turn. I had no control over the type of damage it would do. I had no idea what was going to happen next. You see, in the 15 years that my family had lived in Florida, this was our first hurricane.

The most vivid memory I have of what happened for the next 12 hours was the deafening sound. You have all seen the news where Mr. "Joe Trailer Park" is being interviewed after a tornado and inevitably he says something like, "It sounded like a freight train going through the living room." He's not wrong. It did sound like that. But this one was worse. It sounded more like you were lying on the train tracks in the middle of your living room while that freight train ran over you for six straight hours. I kept thinking to myself, If it doesn't get any worse, then we'll be okay. And then it would get worse.

When it was finally over, I remember venturing out to survey the damage. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for what I saw. Vans were overturned. A shed had literally exploded against the side of our house. A wood board had gone through two of our steel window shutters and broken the glass below them. Tree branches and debris were everywhere. Our screened-in patio was missing half of its screen panels, and a big chunk of the patio roof was gone. To say we were shocked is an understatement. We were numb. It felt like we were experiencing every emotion all at once — shock, awe, sadness, anger — and in order to cope we just decided not to feel anything. Where do you start to rebuild a neighborhood much less an entire county of devastation?

There was not a house, tree, field, or sign post that wasn't split, crushed, overturned, or run through. Roads I had traveled my entire life were now completely unfamiliar to me. Our church had a section missing in the middle where one of the tornadoes had touched down. Forests were leveled. Cars were on roofs. My safe, buffered, serene, little town looked like it had been through a nuclear explosion.

But our house was still intact, we still had a phone, and within hours, we had running water. We couldn't drink out of the tap, but we could bathe in it and boil it. We had been truly blessed. Not many others could have said the same for themselves. So, because we were almost the only household with those basic necessities, our home became the central headquarters of our church group and neighborhood.

We immediately got to work to find our "new normal." We turned the tattered patio into an outdoor kitchen. Every night at 6:00 p.m., people would bring over whatever was thawing out of their freezers, and we would feed whoever needed a hot meal. Sometimes we would have 15 for dinner, sometimes we would have 30, but we always had enough food to go around. Everyone eventually looked forward to those meals, because it became a time to laugh, or cry, about what had happened. We were becoming a new community bonded by having survived a horrific event.

I can remember many small miracles. As an example, our neighbors would come from their own homes to ours just to use the phone to call loved ones and assure them of their safety. Yet we never got a bill for the hundreds of long distance phone calls that were made.

We heard stories of friends who had huddled in closets with mattresses covering them while their homes fell down around them. We heard about people who had raced from their homes to their neighbors' during the eye to achieve some level of safety from the debris. Miraculously, none of our friends, church members, or neighbors were hurt.

My friend's dad, Jim, was the contact point for thousands of volunteers coming to clear debris a few days after the storm. He only had to find a place for them to camp overnight. The only problem was that there was not a clear space for miles to put the thousands of people that were coming. Even to this day, he remembers feeling inspired to walk into the local high school, past the two sets of armed guards (who would not normally give him permission to do such a thing, but did) and straight into a meeting of Army National Guard leaders. Jim put his hands on the shoulders of the man with his back to the door. As the man turned around, they immediately recognized each other. Turns out, the Commander of the National Guard Unit tasked with digging out our city was an old friend of Jim's who had flown with him during the Vietnam War. Jim explained what he needed, and this Army officer began making orders. "Move the machinery off the football field. Clear a place for these people to stay, and give this man whatever he needs." By that afternoon, all of the preparations were in place.

On another occasion, my father (an engineer by trade) and a few other men needed to restore telephone service to one of the churches serving as Red Cross headquarters. These men had no idea what to do. And as they stood around a downed telephone pole, wires sticking out all over the place, they said a prayer. They knew that if they put the right two together, they could restore the phones. My dad picked up two wires, put them together, and the phones worked.

We witnessed many miracles over the course of the first month after the storm. Unfortunately, they all seemed to fade into memory after our "new normal" started to resemble our "old normal."

On September 23rd, 1992, one day shy of a month after the storm, workers from the Jacksonville Electric Authority showed up on our street to turn on the power. We celebrated that night in 75-degree, air-conditioned comfort with all of our neighbors and the workers who had restored something we had grown accustomed to living without. It took days to walk into a room and remember that we could flip a switch and a light would actually turn on. But that marked the retreat of our community into our former way of life. Neighbors would wave cordially but no longer shared regular meals. Our street was free of debris, and soon all of the homes looked like they had before the storm. Everyone went back to work or back to school, and life went on.

It was this experience, at 14-years-old, that taught me that the most important things in life weren't things. We were some of the few who were able to live in our home while we made necessary repairs. My friends and family were safe. Suddenly having the latest and greatest clothes, or music, or "things" didn't seem as important as it had in the past. My mom and I would constantly say to each other, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Our treasure was the daily miracles we witnessed as we recovered from this devastating storm. We came to appreciate that everything we owned could be replaced. Homes and clothes, furniture and dishes, even Grandma's antiques were not remotely important when weighed against the health and well-being of our family and friends. We treasured ice to cool the sweltering, August afternoons. We treasured working side by side to fill orders for the Red Cross or to clean up debris. We still treasure the sense of community that we experienced through all of the trials and hardships.

For years, time in Homestead, Florida was measured as "Before Andrew" and "After Andrew." As the people who had weathered the storm moved on and were replaced by people who had never experienced anything of that magnitude, the stories of survival and triumph faded. But every time I see a news story about a group of people affected by a fire or flood or earthquake or tornado or hurricane, I can't help but be transported back to being that 14-year-old girl — scared, unsure, and forever changed by the lesson that true treasure can't be measured in dollars and cents. And I say a little prayer that the victims of the disaster will learn that same lesson.