As the extremely powerful Hurricane Irma made its way towards Florida on September 10 this year, it stirred some depressing memories in many residents of Miami and the South Florida regions – memories of Hurricane Andrew, which had struck 25 years ago with devastating consequences.
In the early morning hours of August 24th, 1992 Hurricane Andrew, the biggest storm to hit Miami in over 60 years, roared through South Florida. It left many people displaced and injured, reportedly claiming 44 lives and destroying thousands of homes. Twenty five years later the name “Andrew” is still synonymous in Miami for this hurricane that forever changed so many lives.
Among those affected were the students and teachers at Palmetto Bay’s Southwood Middle School. In the aftermath of the storm, many of the students had no place to go while their parents did their best to salvage and rebuild what Hurricane Andrew had left of their homes. The school had suffered some severe damage too, including its popular Magnet Photography Program which had a dark room that the storm had turned into a huge mess. Equipment accumulated by the school over 12 years that was valued at $170.000 at the time had been submerged in four feet of salt water and ruined, including the students’ damaged personal photography equipment. However, instead of letting frustration and sadness get a hold on them, the students created art from the disaster thanks to their passionate photography teacher, Colette Stemple.
In order to help the students cope with the trauma and give them –and herself, for that matter– a different focus, Colette organized a project with her photography students. Under her supervision, they forged a record of Hurricane Andrew’s destructive power by photographing the changed environment. “I asked the principal if he would hire us a school bus so that we could drive around Dade County documenting the destruction,” Colette remembers. The principal agreed, and the students and their teacher rode through the heart of the destruction and photographed what Hurricane Andrew left behind, documenting what they saw.
Back in 1992, before cell phones and Instagram, “photographing” meant nothing else but taking pictures with cameras, exposing roll after roll of film, handling slides and negative strips, and printing photographs on paper –in small, medium or large formats. Nobody knows for sure how many pictures were taken by the students, but many of their photographs, negatives, prints, photographic slides, collages and accompanying text fill several of the boxes now being safely housed at University of Miami Special Collections.
Colette realized very early on the significance of the students’ work. “When I saw their images I knew that their work was unique and powerful. I realized that this was the first time in history that the children victims of a natural disaster had documented the tragedy.” This point of view was shared by many as time went by.
One of the Southwood students involved in the project was Nicholas Wohl. Today a fire captain for the city of Miami, Nicholas was 12 years old when Andrew struck, and he still remembers those days well. The storm had destroyed his family’s home to a good extent, and for several months, he lived in a trailer with his parents, his older siblings, two dogs, and his fragile grandmother. “It was like camping,” he said with a smile before admitting that the sense of adventure soon took a sour turn when all his family members had to help and clean up the site of their destroyed home.
Did young Nicholas understand the importance of the project at the time? “Not very,” he admitted with a laugh during a recent visit to Special Collections with his daughter Ella while looking at some of his own photographs from the collection. Two images had been framed together for the exhibit at the time and also archived that way later. They show the street right outside of the Wohl family’s home – one image had been taken only days before Andrew struck, the second image right after the impact, reflecting the storm’s enormous destructive power that had uprooted trees and destroyed houses in Nicholas’ neighborhood. The photos are among some of the few in the collection which show the “before and after” of the storm, allowing a direct comparison and leaving one feeling eerily unsettled by the amount of significant change.
Were his parents proud of their son’s work? “They had other things on their minds during these tough times,” Nicholas remembered, but he added, “I cannot emphasize enough how special Colette was. She had so much insight and knew what she was doing. She talked about it a lot, for instance she said, ‘This is going to be permanently placed in the University of Miami Library. And you will be forever able to go and visit it.’ And I remember, years later when I was here studying for a promotion, I went up to Special Collections to see the photos and take pictures.”
Actually, before the images became part of the archives at Special Collections, they were in an exhibition. “We all knew that the work had to be exhibited, the students, the parents and me,” said Colette.
To mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Andrew in 1993, the photographs were shown at the Miami Art Museum at the Congressional Gallery in Tallahassee and in Santa Fe, New Mexico under the title “Eye of the Storm thru the Eye of a Child”. The title came from Aurelio Sica, a famous Florida advertising photographer whose daughter, Amanda, was in Colette’s class. Asked if she feels that the exhibit generated a heightened awareness of the situation in South Miami, Colette answered with a straight ‘Yes’. “In Tallahassee I was told that the students’ images were viewed by Congress to help determine monies to be allotted to different areas for recovery. The children were thrilled that they were part of the healing process.”
University of Miami professors Michael L. Carlebach and Eugene Provenzo were instrumental in bringing the photographs to Special Collections. Just like Colette Stemple, they considered the images a testament to the ingenuity and resiliency of South Floridians in the face of such devastation.