Hurricane Andrew 25 Years Later: Homestead Was Ground Zero

"There were no traffic lights. There were no street signs. There were no landmarks," Jeff Blakely recalled

Twenty-five years ago Thursday, the city of Homestead was in the eye of a Category 5 storm — the highest category on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale — that unleashed its wrath on South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992.

Hurricane Andrew’s 175-mile-per-hour wind gusts leveled Homestead, destroyed much of South Florida’s infrastructure system and left tens of thousands homeless.

As an estimated 1 million fled north from South Florida, Jeff Blakely, a historian at the downtown Homestead Town Hall Museum, decided to stay behind. The afternoon before the storm hit, Blakely said the skies were a beautiful shade of blue and "green lush greenery" covered the landscape.

"The next morning it was all gone," he said.

Homer Knowles was a pilot for Pan American World Airways in 1992. The Homestead resident said the airlines encouraged all of its employees to evacuate the suburb, located about 30 miles south of Miami.

"My sister lived in Miami so I went up and stayed with her and weathered out the storm there," Knowles told NBC6. "It was a little breezy, to say the least, but it was nothing like what was going on down here."

"I couldn't find my street, where my house was, that was the first thing. Then, when I did find it, I thought I'd made a mistake. I thought that can't be my house, but it was," Knowles recalled.

Blakley said as he traversed his neighborhood, residents looked like "walking zombies” and all anyone could say was “Oh, my God.”

"You could not get gas. There was no power anywhere in Dade County. There were no traffic lights. There were no street signs. There were no landmarks," Blakely said.

"You didn't have air conditioning, you didn't have refrigeration, you didn't have water," Jensen added.

Hurricane Andrew was the most destructive hurricane in Florida history and the costliest in U.S. history until Katrina in 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Like much of the surrounding communities, Homestead Air Force Base was also ravaged by the full fury of Andrew. Once considered a "jewel" of the Air Force, according to former Homestead Mayor Tad DeMilly, Homestead Air Force Base became a ghost town.

"The base was so badly damaged that rebuilding it was almost out of the question,” said Bob Jensen, president of the Town Hall Museum.

The base was partially rebuilt and is now home to the Homestead Air Reserve.

In the days after the storm, federal and local response was slowed by bureaucratic snarls. Neither President George H.W. Bush nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered a large-scale response until four days later, The New York Times reported at the time.

"We were totally ignored for about four days. Nobody came to our help, nobody brought water, there was no military, there was no police or anything. It was just wild," Knowles said.

Officials at various federal agencies told the Times that “there was a breakdown in communication and coordination at top levels of government.”

"After the military finally got in and they started patrolling, we had a lot of help from the police and what not," Knowles said. "They finally got people coming down with water and some supplies for the people, like ice and things like that, it got a lot better."

It was years before people began returning to Homestead and nearly two decades for the city to fully bounce back. When the hurricane hit, Homestead was home to 25,000 people. Today, the city has tripled its population, nearing 75,000 residents.

"Probably didn't start coming back until maybe 2000 because it was such a blow. The infrastructure was gone. It just took a long, long time," Blakely said.

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