Things Hurricane Andrew Could Not Destroy
THERE are hurricanes, and then there are hurricanes.* Some are little more than strong winds, bringing heavy rain and uprooting trees. Then there was Hurricane Andrew in south Florida (August 24, 1992) and Louisiana (August 26, 1992), Hurricane Iniki in Kauai, Hawaii (September 12, 1992), and Typhoon Omar in Guam (August 28, 1992).
These wrought devastation that ran into the billions of dollars. Dozens of people perished in Florida. Thousands of families were left homeless. Insurance agents were scurrying around ruined homes looking for owners and writing checks.
A report from the Fort Lauderdale Relief Committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses said that 518 of the 1,033 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the region could be repaired. Applied in general, that would mean that at least 50 percent of all homes in Andrew’s path were destroyed. Afterward, those fortunate enough to have a home still fit for habitation were trying to dry out their furniture and drapes and clean out the white slime created by ceilings that fell under the deluge of rain that came through damaged roofs. Many could hardly face looking at the ruins of their homes. Those who perhaps fared worst were the ones living in less sturdy mobile homes or trailers.
Hurricane Andrew Spared No One
One such couple was Leonard and Terry Kieffer. When they went to revisit their mobile home park in Florida City, they had to identify themselves at a military checkpoint in order to enter the area. What they saw was a mobile home park that looked as if it had been hit by hundreds of high-explosive bombs—without leaving any craters. Trees were uprooted. Sheets of mangled aluminum, formerly the walls and roofs of homes, were wrapped around trees and hanging from limbs like some kind of grotesquely festive trimmings. Power lines were down everywhere, the wooden poles snapped like matchsticks. Cars were overturned and smashed.
Bob van Dyk, whose new home was declared unfit for habitation, described the scene in his house: “The ceiling came crashing down, smashing the smashable, bending the bendable and scaring us, the scareable.”
Personal belongings, toys, clothing, photos, books, lay around as sad reminders of a former life-style. A lonely black cat wandered aimlessly through the rubble. It stared back at the Kieffers quizzically. Little lizards scurried over what had previously been someone’s precious possessions. The stench of rotting food, spilled from broken refrigerators, hung in the air. In every direction was a scene of violent destruction—all caused by winds, powerful winds, gusting to over 160 miles per hour [260 km/hr].
It was heartrending for the owners and occupants of these homes. After many years of raising a family and sharing their lives in their own special nests, they came back after the storm to find everything smashed and scattered. The Kieffers had salvaged some of their belongings on a prior visit, but it was too traumatic for them to pick through the domestic rubble that was left. However, they appreciated that they were still alive and able to serve God.
Hurricane Andrew spared nothing. Shopping malls, factories, warehouses—all became the target of nature’s onslaught. Puny man’s building codes did not stand the test.
The Best and the Worst of Human Nature
Help began to pour into Florida from all over the country as different relief agencies got organized. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, reacted at once and appointed a relief committee to function out of the Fort Lauderdale Assembly Hall. They also assigned a considerable sum of money for the purchase of materials, food, and emergency items. As a consequence, the Witnesses were among the first to react to the situation and began calling for volunteers. In fact, many came without being called.
Witness workers turned up from California, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington State, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and many other places. A Virginia Regional Building Committee that usually builds Kingdom Halls sent a group of 18 Witnesses to repair roofs. It took them 18 hours to drive down. Relief workers took vacation time or leaves of absence and drove across the country, hundreds and even thousands of miles, to reach their fellow Witnesses in distress.
Of invaluable aid was the group that came from the Charleston area in South Carolina. They had had experience with Hurricane Hugo back in 1989. They knew what to expect and soon organized relief supplies, including electric generators and building materials. Within two weeks volunteer crews had dried out some 800 homes and had repaired many roofs.
Many non-Witness spouses and neighbors benefited from the help offered by teams of Witness repairmen. Ron Clarke from West Homestead reported: “Unbelieving mates have really been impressed with all of this. They have been in tears, overwhelmed at what the Witnesses have already done for them.” About the unbelieving husband of one Witness, he added: “He is just ecstatic—Witnesses are over there now putting on his roof for him.”
Another Witness told of his non-Witness neighbors whom he checked on each night. They said they were OK. On the fifth day, the wife broke down and wept. “We don’t have any diapers for the baby. We’re low on baby food. We don’t have enough food and water.” The husband needed five gallons [20 L] of gasoline but could not get it anywhere. That same day, the Witness brought all they needed from the Kingdom Hall relief depot. The wife cried with gratitude. The husband gave a donation toward the relief work.
A critical role was played by the congregation elders and ministerial servants who worked together in organizing relief at the different restored Kingdom Halls in the disaster zone. They worked tirelessly to track down all the Witnesses and to check out their needs. In contrast, an Air Force officer was quoted as saying about the relief effort in another area: “All the chiefs just want to be chiefs, but nobody wants to get down and actually do the dirty work.”
Disasters can bring out the best and the worst in people. An example of the latter was the looting. One family of Witnesses decided they could at least save their refrigerator and the washing machine for use at the relief center at the local Kingdom Hall. They went to the hall to get a truck. Before they got back, looters had stolen both items!
An eyewitness reported: “As we traveled through the desolated streets, we saw homes with signs warning looters to keep away. Some of the signs said, ‘Looters Must Die’ and, ‘Looters Will Be Shot.’ Another said, ‘Two looters shot. One dead.’ Stores and malls had been plundered.” According to a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division, at least one looter had been caught and lynched by the people.
Many arrests were made. It seems that in any disaster the criminal element is ready to swoop down like vultures. And even so-called ordinary people get swept up in looting. Religion, ethics, and morals seem to evaporate under the temptation of something for nothing.
Awake! was told that in the beginning a few soldiers even had their unloaded rifles stolen from them by armed looters. Some soldiers were heard to say that they viewed the Kingdom Hall relief center as an oasis in the desert “because,” as they said, “you people don’t carry guns.”
“Don’t Sit Around and Mope”
What have Jehovah’s Witnesses learned from their experiences with natural disaster? Renew spiritual activities as soon as possible. Ed Rumsey, an overseer in Homestead, told Awake! that one double Kingdom Hall was ready for meetings on the Wednesday following the Monday hurricane. Some of the roofing had gone, the ceilings had collapsed, and water had entered. The volunteers worked quickly to get the Kingdom Halls back in shape for meetings and to use them as command stations from which to direct the relief work in their devastated area. Kitchens were set up so that meals could be served to the victims and the relief workers.
Fermín Pastrana, an elder from the Princeton Spanish Congregation, reported that seven families in his congregation of 80 Witnesses had lost their homes entirely. What remedy had he suggested to his fellow Witnesses? “Grieve if you need to grieve. But then don’t sit around and mope. Get active helping others, and, to the degree possible, go out in the ministry. Don’t miss our Christian meetings. Solve what can be solved, but don’t fret about what has no solution.” As a result, Witnesses were soon preaching and taking relief boxes from house to house. Andrew had not blown away their zeal.
‘The Next Time We Will Evacuate!’
Sharon Castro, a 37-year-old woman from Cutler Ridge told Awake! her story: “My father decided not to evacuate. He felt that since the last hurricane had turned away from hitting the Florida coast, Andrew would do the same. He was not even going to board up the windows. Fortunately, my brother came around and insisted on covering the windows with plywood. Without a doubt his action saved our lives. Our windows would have been shattered, and we would have been cut to pieces.
“At about 4:30 a.m., the electricity went out. The noises outside were terrifying. It was like the sound of a huge railway train. There was cracking as trees and buildings snapped and broke. We found out later that a frightening squeaking sound was the noise of the long nails in our roof working themselves loose. The attic blew off, and one third of the roof went. We ended up, 12 of us, including my invalid mother and my 90-year-old grandmother, having to shelter in a middle room with no windows. We felt sure we were going to die there.”
What lesson did she learn from the experience? “The next time they tell us to evacuate, we will evacuate—no questions asked. We will pay attention to warnings. I have also learned to share and to live on very little. And I know it is OK to cry, to grieve, and then face up to reality.”
Reactions of the Press
Even the media noted how well the Witnesses were organized. The Savannah Evening Press carried the headline “Jehovah’s Witnesses Find They Are Welcome in South Florida,” and The Miami Herald declared: “Witnesses Care for Their Own—and Others.” It stated: “No one in Homestead is slamming doors on the Jehovah’s Witnesses this week—even if they still have doors to slam. About 3,000 Witness volunteers from across the country have converged on the disaster area, first to help their own, then to help others. . . . Any military organization might envy the Witnesses’ precision, discipline and efficiency.”
The Witnesses are used to organizing mass-feeding operations at their assemblies and conventions. Furthermore, they have organized hundreds of Regional Building Committees all over the world to construct Kingdom Halls and large Assembly Halls. Thus, they have trained manpower ready to respond on a few hours’ notice.
However, there is another factor—their attitude. The same report continued: “There’s no bureaucracy. There are no battling egos. Instead, workers seem impossibly cheerful and cooperative no matter how hot, grimy or exhausted.” How was that explained? One Witness answered: “This comes from a relationship with God that motivates us to demonstrate our love for others.” That was something else that Andrew could not take away, the Witnesses’ Christian love.—John 13:34, 35.
An interesting comparison is that the Witnesses seemed to have learned from the trees. One eyewitness expressed it this way: “As I traveled around, I could not help but notice that hundreds of large Ficus trees had been uprooted and toppled to the ground. Why was that? They offered high wind resistance due to their bulk, and they had a widespread but shallow root system. On the other hand, most of the slender palm trees remained standing. They bent with the wind, some lost their fronds, but most stayed rooted in the ground.”
The Witnesses had deep roots of faith in God’s Word and were flexible in their reactions. Possessions and homes were not everything to them. At least they were alive and could continue serving Jehovah in spite of adversity. Life was something that Andrew did not take from them.
How Is It Done?
The Anheuser Busch company donated a truckload of drinking water. On arriving, the driver asked officials where he should deliver the water. He was told that the only ones who had something organized were the Witnesses. In fact, within a week after Andrew struck, some 70 tractor-trailer loads of supplies had arrived at the Fort Lauderdale Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A volunteer there reports: “So we received a whole truckload of drinking water. We immediately included this among the other foodstuffs that we were sending to the distribution centers at the Kingdom Halls. It was shared with the brothers and with the neighbors in that area who were in need.” A paper company in Washington State donated 250,000 paper plates.
In the beginning, city authorities were sending non-Witness volunteers to the Kingdom Halls, saying, ‘They are the only ones who are properly organized.’ Eventually the military moved in and began to set up food and water relief centers and tent cities.
The original Witness staging area was set up by the relief committee at the Fort Lauderdale Assembly Hall, which is some 40 miles [60 km] north of the main disaster zone around Homestead. To relieve some of the pressure, a primary staging area was established at the Plant City Assembly Hall near Orlando, about 250 miles [400 km] northwest of the disaster zone. Most relief materials were channeled there for sorting and packing. The committee ordered its needs from Plant City on a daily basis, and huge tractor-trailers were used to cover the five-hour drive down to Fort Lauderdale.
In turn this staging station supplied food, materials, water, generators, and other needs to three Kingdom Halls that had been repaired in the center of the disaster area. There, capable Witnesses organized building and clean-up crews to visit the hundreds of homes that needed attention. Kitchens and feeding lines were also opened on the Kingdom Hall grounds, and anybody was welcome to come for aid. Even some of the soldiers enjoyed a meal and were later observed dropping donations into the contribution boxes.
While the men were busy fixing houses, some of the women were preparing meals. Others were out visiting any people they could find in order to share with them the Bible’s explanation of natural disasters and also to give away boxes of relief supplies to those in need. One of these was Teresa Pereda. Her home was damaged, and her car windows were smashed—yet the car was loaded with relief boxes ready for her neighbors. Her husband, Lazaro, was busy working at one of the Kingdom Halls.—Ecclesiastes 9:11; Luke 21:11, 25.
For many of the homeless, alternative accommodations were found in the homes of Witnesses untouched by Andrew. Others stayed in trailers lent or donated for that purpose. Some moved into the tent cities established by the military. Others just wrote off their homes as a loss and moved in with friends and relatives in other parts of the country. They had neither homes nor jobs. There was no electricity, no water, no adequate sewerage—so they took the best way out for them.
One lesson all learned was well expressed by a Spanish-speaking Witness: “We are very thankful for the lesson that we learned about our goals in life. You know, you can work for 15 or 20 years building up your home, accumulating material things, and then in just one hour, it can all be gone. This helps us to identify our goals spiritually, to make life simpler and really think about serving Jehovah.”
It is much as the apostle Paul stated: “What things were gains to me, these I have considered loss on account of the Christ. Why, for that matter, I do indeed also consider all things to be loss on account of the excelling value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. On account of him I have taken the loss of all things and I consider them as a lot of refuse, that I may gain Christ.”—Philippians 3:7, 8.
Natural disasters are a part of life in our present world. If we heed warnings from the authorities, we may at least save our lives. Maybe homes and possessions will be lost, but a Christian’s relationship with “the God of all comfort” should be strengthened. Even if some may perish in a disaster, Jesus promised a resurrection for them in God’s new world on a restored earth—an earth that will never see misery and death caused by natural disasters.—2 Corinthians 1:3, 4; Isaiah 11:9; John 5:28, 29; Revelation 21:3, 4.
A hurricane is a “tropical cyclone formed over the North Atlantic Ocean in which the winds attain speeds greater than 75 mph (121 km/hr).” (The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia) A typhoon is a “hurricane occurring in the western Pacific or the China Sea.”—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
[Box on page 20]
A group of 11 white Witnesses traveled down from Tampa, Florida, to assist in the relief work. They obtained supplies and began repairing the roof of a black Witness. When a non-Witness nephew arrived, he could not believe his eyes—he was totally amazed to find that a group of white Witnesses had arrived before him and were restoring his uncle’s home. He was so impressed that he even assisted in the construction work.
He said that the next time the Witnesses came by his house, he would ask for a Bible study. As he was talking with the Tampa group, it became evident that he was from their area. Without delay one of the elders in the group made arrangements for a Bible study the following week! As one Witness stated, this proves that you don’t just have to knock on doors to give a witness—you can knock on roofs!
[Pictures on page 15]
Hurricane Andrew spared nothing, and few buildings could resist
The Kieffer’s mobile home—and what is left of it
[Pictures on page 16]
Rebecca Pérez, her daughters, and 11 others survived in this small space
The military stepped in to prevent looting (above right); looted stores (right)
The hurricane ripped off roofs, and vehicles were tossed about
[Pictures on page 17]
Relief was organized at Kingdom Halls
Mobile homes were wrapped around trees; a child’s toys lie forlorn on a mattress; Bible literature is among the debris; Witnesses, such as Teresa Pereda, delivered supplies to their neighbors
Donated building materials. Sorting clothing
[Pictures on page 18]
Volunteers from all over the United States helped in the relief work