MIAMI (CBSMiami) – It was 26 years ago today, August 24th, that Hurricane Andrew roared ashore and pummeled south Miami-Dade.
For many, it was a night of terror as pelting rains and whipping winds wrought destruction, leveling some neighborhoods.
Before Hurricane Andrew, restaurant owner Jim Accursio had the mentality most longtime residents had about hurricanes.
“We felt really confident. About midway through the hurricane I’m thinking to myself I killed my family because things were crashing all around us,” he said.
It was the longest night of not just his life but for that of thousands across South Dade. And the storm was really just the beginning of a lot of sleepless nights.
“It was the worst experience I have ever had in my life. In terms of what I saw and what we were forced to deal with. And you could see it in the faces of people around me,” said Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace. “It was like, I saw, ‘what am I going to do’ on everybody’s face. People were in daze. And for awhile there was a lack of hope. People thought that we wouldn’t come out of it. But not me, I am the eternal optimist.”
Wallace said after the storm, he didn’t recognize his hometown. Every city building had been wiped away, most of his residents were now homeless.
“They thought we had it all planned out, ready to go. Little did they know I was just as devastated as they were and initially there was no larger government entity here. There was no County here. I didn’t see Miami-Dade County until about three weeks after the hurricane when then President Bush came to town. I’m not being critical. They were overwhelmed as well,” he said.
They literally had to rebuild entire cities across South Florida.
Remarkably, Accursio’s family owned restaurant Capri survived the storm. The solid Dade pine roof may be to thank. Thirty days after the storm he re-opened, an attempt to return to normalcy in a place that was everything but.
“Some people we never heard from again,” he said noting they went from 50 employees to just seven.
The reality was that life was hard. No power at home or work. No phones. No stores. No jobs.
“Everything changed. A lot of people left, never came back,” said Wallace.
The mayor estimates roughly half his town left. The devastated Air Force base in Homestead closed. Much of the middle class disappeared.
“So many people that were born and raised here or so many people who had lived here for twenty years, thirty years, they left. So that changed the core of the community,” said Accursio.
Those who stayed were determined to rebuild.
“There was shock but there was opportunity. Everything that we didn’t like about the city we had an opportunity to do it better out of necessity,” said Wallace.
Federal funds, grants, and a boost from insurance checks and sales tax funded a post hurricane building boom. Mayor Wallace said development plans that were 20-30 years away were suddenly expedited because of Andrew.
“The US 1 corridor was not what you see right now. We were able, with the infrastructure that we put in after the hurricane, to bring in some major vendors, the Walmarts, the Home Depots, Best Buys, none of those things were in existence,” he said.
The community would re-emerge thanks to new residents who came for affordable housing. South Dade rode into a housing boom a decade later and then endure a foreclosure crisis.
Today South Dade is once again on the rise. New businesses and residents moving in each day. Most say it’s recovered, it is different though. Wallace said he’s okay with that.
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. But when your hill gets devastated you learn to appreciate what you have a lot more,” he said.