Hurricane Andrew

On August 24, 1992, my Florida Civil Air Patrol (CAP) hurricane mission started with a midnight telephone call from Florida CAP headquarters. They needed a pilot as soon as possible to fly to Homestead. I took off solo around one a.m. from Vandenberg airport, now Tampa Executive Airport (VDF) and flew near the red lines direct from Tampa to Lantana Airport. Our trusty 310 Squadron Cessna 172 purred all the way – it was good karma – not one rough engine sound. That always seems to happen at night over that pitch black hole called the Everglades.

I arrived just before sunrise and after refueling, getting a cup of fresh coffee and a fast but very simple briefing, I took off at dawn for Homestead. Normally we flew with another pilot or observer, but no one was available, and they nearly pushed me out the door, since Washington and everyone else was in the dark. The mission briefing was simple: to get down there as soon as possible. Andrew had come ashore that night as a Category 5 hurricane; all communications were out, and everyone from the White House on down needed to know the situation.

It would be a solo mission, because they did not want me to wait for another crew member: a copilot or mission observer. I would have liked to have had an extra set of eyes to look around or monitor radio channels with me, but that was not to be; they needed to know and needed to know now. There was a total communications blackout; no one knew at any level what was going on or just how bad things were. The Florida Civil Air Patrol was directed to send in aircraft and report back.

So, I was out-the-door with a real high sense of urgency and did a fast walk-around with coffee in hand to check out the aircraft. I took a quick preflight sniff of the engine compartment while checking the engine oil level; another check for jet fuel or water in the fuel and was airborne at dawn. It was the most serious mission I had ever flown as a Civil Air Patrol pilot: to fly the first reconnaissance mission over the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane to survey Andrew’s path of devastation from landfall on the east shore of Biscayne Bay to Homestead west into the Everglades.

I leveled off at 500 feet flying south along the beach from Lantana airport, now Palm Beach County Park (LNA) to my  destination, Homestead.  I took the north-to-south low altitude corridor, called “ The Flyway“, knowing it was the fastest, safest and easiest way to fly south; it required no frequency changes, no radio calls to approach controls or to all the airport control towers.

It was a beautiful bright, clear, calm, cool tropical morning. The surf was flat, a porcelain blue colored ocean smooth as glass. The beaches were like bright white marble, all deserted. I turned on the landing and taxi lights to prevent bird strikes and to make it easier to spot if by chance there was a northbound aircraft. I leaned back, trimmed the bird hands off, and relaxed, taking in the beauty of the morning, listening to the purr of the engine. I sipped coffee and watched for birds and northbound air traffic and wondered what was ahead.

I began to see the signs of Andrews’s passage as far north as the Port Ft. Lauderdale inlet, tell-tale signs beginning with an increasing number of palm fronds and other debris on the beaches. The debris fields got progressively larger and worse as I passed Hollywood Beach; the large beach cabanas were knocked over and awnings had been torn away. It was like a gradual descent into a bad dream or watching a Hollywood disaster movie, made even more eerie since there were no movement, no sea birds, no cars, no people; only increasing damage.

The real shock came south of Miami Beach when I saw multiple 1,500 foot commercial radio and TV towers on Key Biscayne scattered on the ground like a giantʼs game of pickup sticks. That was the first shock and realization, an awakening that this was something very serious. The second shock came as I climbed to a safe engine out, glide-to-land altitude for crossing Biscayne Bay. I looked ahead to the west toward Homestead and saw one of the strangest sights that I have seen in over 6,000 flying hours. The entire horizon was what should have been green was a bright shiny, orange-yellow-gold color, like someone had used bright crayons to color the shoreline.

My first thought was that a low red sky sunrise behind me. I ruled that out after looking back and more closely at the whole situation. I checked in with the CAP base station at Lantana as I neared landfall, and about that time I realized what had caused that strange color. The hurricane winds had exposed the bright orange-yellow-gold plywood on all the homes whose roofs were gone, stripped of their tiles and shingles.

As far as I could tell, the Civil Air patrol was the first and only aircraft over the Andrew disaster area. I kept looking around, as if for MiGs or SAMs over North Vietnam, not wanting a surprise midair encounter with a helicopter. I quickly scanned forward and then down into the devastation. I looked around, still saw no Coast Guard, no military aircraft or media helicopters or any fixed wing aircraft.

It was still very early morning; my guess was they were still in shock or sleeping after a rough night and that their airports and airport towers were out of commission and aircraft hangars all in pieces or that debris covered the ramps and runways.

I neared “Bingo Fuel”, just enough fuel to get back to LNA with minimum reserves. It was the same thing all over Homestead and beyond, all the homes had their roof shingles and tiles ripped off by the 165 mph winds, with gusts even higher, and embedded tornados. The mystery was solved, but to this day, I can still see that incredible image.

I had a flashback to the nights in my Phantom north of Hai Phong watching 100 of our B-52’s bomb North Vietnam. What I saw over Homestead seemed worse. The mobile home trailer parks were totally demolished and all that was left as far as I could see were  piles of yellow pine wood studs, orange plywood panels, pink insulation and trees scattered in random heaps of rubble. Each trailer park was like a landfill piled high with debris. Nothing was moving; there were no people, no one waved to me for help.

I was totally dumbfounded about what I saw. Every street was impassable due to fallen trees and debris. I reported all this with repeated calls to the CAP base station. I told them to get help moving fast – lots of help. And I reported that they would need heavy equipment to move debris of every kind blocking all the streets. It was a total wipe-out for some neighborhoods; in others the roofs were gone and in others just the shingles and tiles were missing and probably by then somewhere west in the Everglades. Many neighborhoods no longer existed. It felt more and more strange. What I saw seemed to stop the clock; it was really surreal.

It was both eerie and puzzling, still not one person in sight. I was sure they could hear the aircraft and yet no one came out to wave or to signal their distress. In a strange way it was good thing, since I could not do a thing to help them unless helicopters were available and airborne. I radioed in and repeated to the CAP station that initial rescues would have to be strictly by helicopter since it would take a lot of manpower and equipment to remove debris and clear access paths for ambulances and rescue vehicles. I used the strongest words I could think of to describe the devastation and the need to mobilize support fast. It was a helpless feeling, like watching a house burn when you had no water to put it out.

I did figure-eights and random turns all over the area and could not spot anyone. I flew toward the Miami – Dade Zoo thinking that the animals might have escaped. I circled the Homestead airport that looked like an aircraft junk yard and circled back to the zoo a number of times getting lower and lower looking down into the animal cages and compounds. It was the same scene there, no people, no animals, only devastation.

It was like Andrew was a giant fist that had pounded Homestead. I was the first and only one who knew just how bad it really was. People had to be hurting and needed help, there had to be life and death situations down there for many. I flew in random tracks looking for anyone in need of help so I could at least forward the coordinates and information to the Civil Air Patrol Center. The CAP team in-turn would forward them to emergency rescue team and helicopters, but I still saw no other people or aircraft. I was the only one there and time stood still. It was only when I got low on fuel and had to return to Lantana that I saw another aircraft entering the disaster area and a  few survivors emerging from their homes and the rubble. My low fuel state made me leave the area. It was still bright and beautiful weather, but impossible to enjoy, as I flew back north along the Flyway beach line north to Lantana. Miamiʼs Airport was still closed, their control tower a mess, but commercial airlines were beginning to arrive at Fort Lauderdale International Airport.

It was a much different, more sober mood than on my flight way to Homestead. It was hard to shake off what I saw on my way home and for a long time after. I accomplished the mission, but it disturbed me that I could not help, that I could not communicate with anyone on the ground. It also disturbed me that even as I left, survivors began appearing in the middle of the street. All I could do was rock my wings as I turned to the northeast to exit at “ Bingo Fuel “. It seemed to me then that better air to ground communications capability would be needed in the future since even if I saw survivors, I could not communicate with them and could not provide direct help.

I landed at LNA and shut down next to the refueling truck; my CAP replacement crew was there waiting, ready and eager to go. I gave them a briefing of what to expect and then went inside to debrief the mission with the full Florida wing staff members that had arrived while I was flying. I felt very proud of the CAP, of the mission we all accomplished during Andrew. Our hope is that we will never have another Andrew or Katrina, but if we do, you can be sure that the Civil Air Patrol will be there first and do all it can to help.


Postscript – I made recommendations later that year to improve air to ground communications in disaster areas to help connect with the evacuation and later survivors in the early stages of recovery. I called the project “Operation Heads Up”. The idea was to install AM and FM transmitters and receivers in our CAP aircraft with the frequencies painted in big number under the wings. Now with cell phones, a 911 like number under the wings would be a big help; with electric power out and towers down I still believe the AM FM frequencies would be best.

I recommend now as in 1992 that since each car in the evacuation area and disaster area has a radio and a battery, citizens would tune their radios during evacuations, they would be advised from an airborne CAP aircraft what bridges are washed out,  what roads were under water, what is the best evacuation routes, highways and roads to take especially when some are at a standstill, jammed and what alternate route they could take. All would use their car radios and now cell phones or IT to call the in-sight aircraft and receive instructions on where to take the injured, what hotels would be available.


Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino became a US Air Force pilot in 1960 and went on to log over 6,000 hours in military, commercial and private flying. He flew the B-47, KC-135, F-4CDE, including three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded 9 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Neil joined OLLI-USF in 2018. He has taken classes in writing, music, teaching, activism and online searches. Neil is always interested in new projects.

 

5 Replies to “Hurricane Andrew”

  1. Neil, your story is mind-boggling….wonderfully descriptive and evocative. Weaving together your own emotions and reactions with the scenes of utter destruction brings it all too alive ..
    thank you for your work and for your gracing us with this reminder.

    1. I had such a reaction reading Neil’s story, but I couldn’t put it into words, but Marilyn, you said what I was thinking and quite beautifully. What an amazing tale.

  2. Neil, thank you for your work. It’s a sobering reminder that we are entering into the most active part of hurricane season. We were frantic for a few days after Andrew, waiting for news about friends and family. Can’t recall feeling more helpless. Later, sending cases of bottled water and other supplies with people going down there.

  3. A very enlightening story. I could feel your concern and surprise as you described your thoughts. Thank you and thank you for suggesting the need for communication for those involved in this disaster.

  4. Thank you, Neil, for your beautifully rendered story of one of the most terrible disasters that has affected Florida. It could happen again . . .

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