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SPOTLIGHT
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Hurricane Andrew teaches a powerful lesson

Published on -8/29/2012, 9:29 AM

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Here's what an idiot I was: I thought it was going to be fun.

Scary, yes -- the lights would go out, the winds would howl, the windows would rattle -- but essentially harmless for all that. It would be fun, in a ghost-stories-in-the-dark, shiver-up-your-back kind of way. We would camp out in the house, eating bologna sandwiches and playing board games, waiting for the lights to come back on.

We had been gone for a week, a family road trip to Washington and Atlanta, and this was before the Internet was ubiquitous, back when it was still possible to unplug from the inflow of information. I had not seen a paper or watched the news since we left Miami. So it was not until the night before we returned, when I chanced to be watching television in a Savannah, Ga., motel, that we learned a hurricane was bearing down on South Florida.

We stopped in Daytona Beach the next day and called our neighbors from a pay phone. Pam and Joe told us to, for God's sake, stay where we were, but we shined them on. I didn't want to miss the fun.

That was 20 years ago last week and, needless to say, "fun" is the last word anyone who went through it would use to describe Hurricane Andrew. Because we had not been there to board up the windows, we spent that night in a defenseless home. We didn't initially understand what we'd wandered into. At one point, water was spitting through the vent in the kitchen ceiling, and my wife was laying down newspaper because she didn't want it to ruin her floor. I pulled her clear just before the ceiling came crashing in.

That's when we understood. We huddled in a closet the rest of the night, me, her, and our five children, ages 18 years down to 23 months, listening fearfully to the thumping, howling and shattering of the storm.

Have you ever felt a wall breathing? Expanding and contracting like lungs? I felt the closet wall breathing against my back all night long. It was the first time in my life -- the only time, thank you, God -- I ever felt the reality, the imminence, the nearness, the likelihood of my own death. It had, shall we say, a centering effect.

But the roof over us held and when morning came, we stepped from that bunker unscathed. Looking back, that seems miraculous to me. The rest of the house was destroyed, sunlight rushing through where the living room roof had been. Almost everything we owned was damaged or destroyed -- clothing, record albums, books, furniture, my wife's car, photos, appliances. We had little food, no water. The TV was facedown in a puddle.

And you know what? It didn't matter. Not even a little bit.

Everybody says that, of course: "It's only stuff; it's not important." Most of the time, I think, that's just lip service. Ours is a culture of acquisition, where people literally kill and die for stuff, for DVD players, Jordans and iPads. I don't think you can appreciate how unimportant stuff truly is until all your stuff is gone and you, against the odds, are not.

This is the lesson the storm taught me. Twenty years later, I live in a new home with new stuff. But the lesson has never left.

The night after the storm, I wandered through that broken house in the dark, I had no idea what would happen next, how I would feed, clothe or house my family. But I do not remember feeling despair. All I remember is gratitude.

I looked up through where the ceiling had been and I could see the stars. I am a lifelong child of the city and I realized I'd never actually seen the stars; most of them had always been lost in the wash of light from the streetlamps and gas station signs of Earth. But there were no lights or signs now, and there they were, an endless field of diamonds glittering upon an infinity of black. For a long moment, I just stood there, looking up.

I'd never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist

for the Miami Herald.

lpitts@miamiherald.com

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