Graphic: Barbara Elizabeth Brady

Toucan Talk Extra
a special report from Miami Metrozoo after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew

Zoological Society of Florida

Primary audience:
zoo members
Secondary audiences:
donors, board members, civic leaders, professional peers

The Night of the Storm

(Adapted from a phone conversation with the (then) director of the Zoological Society of Florida, Glenn Ekey)

There are many beautiful evenings in South Florida, but if you were among the employees at Miami Metrozoo on Sunday evening, August 24, 1992 enjoying the balmy, sweet air after a long, strenuous day, and watching the cool pinks and purples of the sky change to deep blue through the silhouettes of palm trees, you would say it was

Then you hear a voice on the radio, "Wherever you are right now in South Florida, sit down and take a good look around you and enjoy what you're seeing because it will never look the same again after tonight." The words pierce through your mind. Hurricane Andrew is hovering off the coast, yet everything about your surroundings denies the fact that a menace is just hours away.

You don't even really know what a hurricane is. To you, things that have to do with wind hurricanes, tornadoes, twisters are all the same thing: heavy winds that blow a lot. Your coworkers know better, but at this moment, feelings of well-being and the group's sense of adventure, override seriousness of purpose. Someone runs out to buy refreshments. It's time to party.

You are at the zoo because your house is in an evacuation zone, your spouse and child are out of town and you don't really want to be alone through your first hurricane. Your neighbors have been cavalier, "Oh, aren't you cute taking all this so seriously as new people often do." But something in the headlines has made an impression on you. "Bigger. Stronger. Closer." So you get permission to stay at the zoo with several others who, because of professional duty or personal necessity, will sit a storm vigil there.

Your companions are old hurricane hands. Bill Zeigler, the general curator of Metrozoo, has been in South Florida through several hurricanes including a similar night when Hurricane David blew past Crandon Park Zoo on Key Biscayne. Bill's wife, Cindy Zeigler, and three-year-old daughter, Kelsey, are there. Cindy is deputy director of the Zoological Society of Florida and also experienced with tropical storms. Veterinarian Chris Miller says she's a "navy brat" who's no stranger to hurricanes. Security Guards Lavongia Henry and Dan Pearce, Zoological Supervisors Mike Gerlach and Alice Gilley, and Zoological Society Executive Director Glenn Ekey all convey a sense of knowing about hurricanes. You alone are the neophyte.

As the darkness deepens, everyone packs their gear into the zoo hospital, a formidable structure of solid concrete. You put together a makeshift living room with a black and white television as its focus. Each person picks a spot along the wall or in a corner and sets up their own space with cot, sleeping bag, blankets and pillows all soft, warm and secure.

Soon the refreshments are gone, the toddler is asleep, the news reports become monotonous. You are suddenly tired. Without really saying good night, you drift to your cot, tuck yourself in and think back over the events of the day.

You are struck by the fact that preparing for the storm was a very orderly process. The zoo had an excellent plan and everyone went through the plan step-by-step. They seemed to know exactly what to do. Tie down all objects that could become projectiles. Park vehicles on the lee sides of buildings. Gas up trucks and generators. Fill water tanks. Order extra hay and provisions. Lock up large mammals elephants, rhinos, giraffes, great apes, bears, lions and tigers in their concrete-reinforced night houses. Move hoofed mammals out of paddocks and into chain link pens.

Early Sunday you had called to see if they needed any extra hands and were recruited to help move flamingos. This was a new experience for you. The keepers went about their work as if they cleared flamingos from the lake everyday of their lives. They stripped down, got into their water gear, corralled the birds along the shore of the lake, caught them up and passed them right along. You shuttled dripping wet flamingos, one under each arm, from the lake into secure spaces such as restrooms bedded with straw. Hundreds of large birds were cornered, caught, carried and crated that way that day.

The whole preparation process seemed to finish up in perfect time. By evening, all animals were in, everything was finished. There was no chaos. One by one, everyone went home, except for the small group, now resting in silence.

You sleep, dreamlessly. And when you wake up, you hear the voices of your comrades. You hear the television. You hear the wind outside. You lie there sorting the wind sound from the other sounds, thinking, "Well, this isn't so bad. The wind's blowing out there, but if this it, no big deal." So you get up, pull on your jeans and wander back into the little living room.

Somewhere, there are airplanes up in the sky, sending TV pictures down. You are all watching the edge of the storm touch the land. There is no more doubt about where it is going to hit. They keep saying it is a very powerful hurricane so you are in for a thrashing. Gradually, the wind becomes louder, faster, fiercer, and your tension grows with the power of the storm.

It's still night. Outside it's dark. You listen to the intensity of the wind, to the pelting and pummeling sound of flying debris hitting the building. Huge objects pound the walls and bounce across the ground. You hear a screeching that sounds like metal being shredded. Occasionally someone walks up to a door and shines a flashlight through its small window. You hang back, afraid, but you fix your eyes on that beam of light cutting through the rain. You can see things flashing through the beam like lightening. What must be happening to the animals?

With an explosion and a crash of shattering glass the wind enters the building. Mike calls out, "There goes our first window," and you're thinking, "What do you mean, our first window? Maybe it'll be our only window." But something about Mike's tone of voice communicates experience, so you resign yourself.

Another window explodes, then others. The wind whirls into every part of the building, like a small tornado in every room. Water and leaves are flying in. The hallways begin to flood. In the back of the hospital you see the thick steel doors bowing. The wind feels like a relentless, ferocious demon. Wherever you are, it will come and get you.

The wind pushes through the roof and the ceilings start to collapse. You hear someone yell, "One of the air conditioners is coming down!" You hear it ripping away from the building. The power goes out and immediately a generator kicks on. In the blackness, red emergency lights are blinking as alarms scream through the entire building. A fire must have started. You are gulping in air, holding your breath, trying to keep breathing, feeling trapped, feeling weak, while others seem to know exactly what to do. They are standing up on chairs checking light fixtures, looking for electrical fires, wrapping towels around the fire alarms to deaden the sound.

The TV is turned up and up so you can hear over the wind and the alarms. They are saying that the storm will last five or six more hours. At that duration and this intensity you are not going to make it. They keep talking about the eye coming, but the storm is too relentless. The building will not hold. If there is a fire, there is nowhere to go.

Mike is on the phone to his girlfriend. She is going crazy at home alone and he is talking her through it. Somehow Cindy and Bill learn that their home has been destroyed. Cindy is holding Kelsey who looks like she's painted across her mother. They are standing between a wall and a large freezer when Cindy's knees buckle. She collapses to the door crying, "Our house is gone." You put your hand on her shoulder, but you, too, are terrified and have no comfort to give. You find yourself retreating deeper and deeper into the building, sucking in long, tense breaths, as if filling your chest with air will fend off the wind. In a narrow interior room you can hear gravel shooting through the heating ducts. The generator keeps the TV talking. They say this hurricane is moving faster than normal hurricanes. It feels like forever.

At some point you know the building's not on fire. The alarms are turned off. The storm is quiet by comparison. Your breathing becomes more regular as the roar of the wind diminishes. You start to feel the building will hold. The storm subsides. A hard rain falls. When it is finally dawn, you walk outside and there it is in the gray morning light: the curtain is rising on a tragedy beyond scope.