We quickly packed up, got the kids into the car, and said goodbye to brother Mike. We headed south from D.C. to our home… or whatever was left of it. We listened to the radio reports while driving only to hear of utter devastation to the South Miami and Homestead area. Apparently, the storm was headed for a direct hit on central Miami, but wobbled south just before making landfall. Our house was located in Kendall, an area about 20 minutes south of the airport.
Miami Jai-Alai is located near Miami International Airport. My thoughts wandered between the condition of our house and the fronton. I could not reach anyone at Miami Jai-Alai. These were the early days of cell phones. Not everyone had one. There were few cell towers. Most were now gone.
I could not help but think of the irony if Miami Jai-Alai was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. It was built because the massive hurricane of 1926 destroyed the first fronton in Miami located on the grounds of Hialeah Race Track. Could our current 65 year-old building, now just a few miles from Hialeah, withstand this monstrous storm. Would history repeat itself?
Our plan was to go as far as possible that day. I knew we couldn’t make it all the way home. But, the news reports were getting more dire as the day went on. Finally, we got near St. Augustine around 11 p.m. and I was exhausted. We checked into a motel on I-95 for the night.
As we approached Ft. Lauderdale the following morning, we hardly noticed any damage. Maybe the media was exaggerating. An occasional tree was blown over, some palms down as we passed the Miami airport area. Then, we passed a church toward the end of the Palmetto Expressway. Its steeple was completely ripped off. We slowed as we came to the familiar merging of the Palmetto and U.S. 1.
“Where are we?” I said to Sue as we came to the first major intersection on U.S. 1. The terrain was completely unrecognizable. The stop lights were lying on the ground. The street lights and utility poles flattened. It actually looked like a bomb had gone off …. a very, very large bomb.
We turned right onto what I thought was SW 104th Street, trying to make our way to our house. Trees were strewn across the road. We actually had to drive up on lawns to get around them. Up ahead was the house of our close friends, the Coopers. Brad and Kathy Cooper, along with their kids Courtney and Kyle lived in our townhouse complex when we first arrived in Miami. They had just recently moved to a single family home, now on our left. What I saw was heartbreaking.
Brad was slowly walking around his front yard seemingly in a daze. I guess he was assessing the damage to his house. As we pulled up to his house, his face reflected the horror he must have gone through the previous night, listening to the roar of the 170 m.p.h. winds, trying to protect his family from this unfathomable force of nature. My lips began to tremble. I looked at the forlorn look in his eyes. I could not speak.
Finally, I forced out, “Are you guys ok?” I tried to casually wipe the tears now running down my face. He said, “Yeah, we made it. But, it was bad!” We lived about 2 miles away. He told me he wasn’t sure the best way to get to our house. Trees were down everywhere. Many of the streets were impassable. As we drove away, there was complete silence in the car. We had no idea what we would find.
We made it to our house. It was an eerie feeling seeing most of the houses intact. But, there were no trees. And, our front door was wide open. It was a relief that our roof was still on and the exterior looked fine. Of course, with no electricity, the garage door would not open.
The inside of our house looked ok, except for Shawna’s room. Some objects broke her window. Rain came in and soaked her carpet. Limbs were sitting in the middle of her floor. Otherwise, all was intact.
Then, we saw the pool area and the backyard. Our gigantic ficus tree had been uplifted and thrown over, crashing through the pool enclosure. It laid across most of the backyard and into the pool virtually blocking the entrance into the house. Also, one of the 60 foot Royal Palms had blown over and looked to have bounced off the edge of the house. It’s huge trunk laid across the patio. Besides the pool and the edge of the roof, the house had survived!
The coming days saw all of us in “survival mode.” There was no electricity, no drinkable water, sporadic phone service. And, it was hot!!! Chain saws could be heard everywhere. Roofers and scammers appeared. The National Guard was patrolling the streets, trying to prevent looting. I needed to find out about Miami Jai-Alai.
I finally reached Dan Licciardi, who was our Operations and Assistant GM. Dan lived in The Hammocks not too far from us. He had weathered the storm with his family pretty well. Now, Dan felt personally responsible for his other “baby”, Miami Jai-Alai. Dan found that the old building held up very well against the storm, just having some cosmetic damage to the decorative towers on the roof.
We were in the middle of our Summer Jai-Alai season. We were attempting to recover from the financial disaster of the player strike. Dan knew we couldn’t afford another setback, even if it was an act of nature. So, he did the impossible. He did everything he could to contact the employees and reach the players. After seeing how they weathered the storm, he assured them that he was going to get the fronton open soon.
But, there were many problems to overcome. One in particular was the 7 pm curfew in many areas of Miami. Plus, access to the fronton was extremely limited. Stop lights weren’t in service, roads were still blocked, and people were in repair mode.
Dan Licciardi pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He convinced the county to allow any employees working at the fronton to return home after the performance, through the National Guard checkpoints. He got the word out that we were going top open, and we did!
Miami Jai-Alai was only closed 3 DAYS! And, believe it or not, the fans came back. Whether it was wanting to get into some air conditioning or just needing some distraction from the chaos of the cleanup, we actually had amazing numbers.
I will never forget Dan’s generosity in those first few days after the storm. He allowed me and other employees access to the fronton ice machines. Ice was a rare commodity in those early days. With no electricity, you had no refrigeration.
I drove to the fronton with a cooler and Dan filled it up. Then, with hardly any food available in South Miami, I found the Miami Subs on 36th Street open for a few hours on my way home. I picked up about 10 subs. It was like striking gold. I had the kids run to our neighbors and tell them we had subs for them. It is amazing how the simple things become so important in certain situations.
We survived Hurricane Andrew. Miami Jai-Alai made it, too. We could now concentrate on trying to build back our business, especially with the influx of insurance money in the market. I was enjoying my new role heading up Martin Fleischman Advertising. But, all good things come to an end. I just never could have predicted how.