Andrew 25: Storm drove them from Miami-Dade to Palm Beach County


Hurricane Andrew uprooted more than trees.

When the winds died that morning in 1992, 25 years ago this week, and the sun came out, and people had a chance to look around, some stayed, and others decided it was time to go.

Studies showed 29,125 people moved from Miami-Dade to Palm Beach County between 1992 and 2001. In the same time period, 10 times that, 230,710, moved from Miami-Dade to Broward.

Some people who came to Palm Beach County severed shallow roots; some deep ones. Here are some of them. And their stories.

Josh Velez: “They say things happen for a reason.”

Born in Brooklyn, Josh Velez moved with his family in 1988 to Miami’s Wynwood section, north of downtown. He was 9.

Wynwood now is an arts mecca. But in the 1980s, it was known for unemployment and drug trafficking.

“I didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods,” Josh said this month.

He was 13 in August 1992.

“I remember every little detail. I’ll never forget,” he said. “The wind sounded like an evil spirit whistling. We could hear all the fruits banging on the house, being blown off trees.”

When the home’s 6-foot living room window shattered, “the storm pretty much came in the house,” Josh said. “Yes. We were all terrified.”

One sister already had moved away, but three others lived at the house in 1992. The three, along with Josh and his mom, huddled and waited; Josh said his father was a security supervisor for an area hotel and had to be there, so “I was pretty much the male of the house.”

The storm “wrecked” the home. The family was renting and had lost most of its belongings, and “we had to find somewhere to move,” Josh said. “My parents decided to relocate and pretty much start over.” He doesn’t recall why his parents opted for Palm Beach County.

Josh had picked up a trombone in junior high. Now in suburban Lake Worth, he graduated from Palm Beach Lakes High and earned a full scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, where he was trombone leader of the school’s 350-piece band.

He spent two years in lawn service, then in 2005 went to L.C. Swain in Greenacres, then one of just four middle schools in Palm Beach County with marching bands. Two years later, he was at Glades Central in Belle Glade, making the long drive daily. In 2010, he went to Boynton Beach High. And in 2016, he was named to direct at Palm Beach Lakes, his alma mater.

He’s been married for 14 years to a girl he’d met back in Miami at age 9. They have four kids ranging in age from 7 to 18.

What if Andrew never had happened?

“I do think about it,” Josh said. Back in Miami, he said, he “might have gone into the wrong element,” and never connected with his wife or gone to college.

“They say things happen for a reason. I think things worked out they way they were supposed to.”

Manny Escamilla: “Let’s get out of this mess.’”

Manny Escamilla had uprooted in 1991 from El Paso, Texas, to become lumber and building materials manager at a North Miami Home Depot. Raised in the Tex-Mex culture, he loved Miami’s Latin flavor. And, previously landlocked, he loved the ocean. But back in the Texas desert, he hadn’t contended with hurricanes.

With Andrew looming, residents stormed Manny’s store. He begged supervisors to send for the maximum shipments of plywood, nails, tar paper, shingles and other supplies. He urged them to rent out a local warehouse for a distribution point. The place was active around the clock. So was Manny, who slept at the store, going home to Pembroke Pines, just across the Broward line, just to shower. Hour after hour, he cut plywood for window coverings, and when that was gone, he cut up wooden doors.

The day Andrew was to arrive, three flatbed trucks arrived, They had to park behind the building, covered, waiting for the storm to pass. That’s when Escamilla realized he hadn’t boarded up his own house. He found some plywood at the bottom of a display rack, fired up the store’s saw and took what he had home. By the time he changed clothes, five neighbors had taken the plywood off his truck, grabbed nail guns and started putting up his shutters.

Escamilla, his wife and their daughters, then 4 and 2, waited out the storm. The next morning, he was back at the store, helping unload trucks. His location sold more than $1 million in items in three days.

The next year, he was asked to take over at another Home Depot. This one was on Northlake Boulevard.

He retired from Home Depot and worked at the Kravis Center box office and did security at CityPlace and at West Palm Beach City Hall. But he also had begun volunteering as a Spanish interpreter, first for the Caridad Center for three years, and then was a certified medical interpreter. He started volunteering for the Palm Beach County Public Defender, then began doing it for pay, something he still does.

He had stayed in Pembroke Pines the first year he was at the Northlake store but then moved to West Palm Beach, where he remains.

“It was the best thing I could have done,” he said. “People in Miami-Dade moved up to Broward. People in Broward moved to Palm Beach. When people got their insurance money, they said, ‘Let’s upgrade. Let’s get out of this mess.’”

Rafael Perez: An iconic restaurant is born

After Fidel Castro took power, Roberto and Marta Reyes fled Cuba for the U.S. mainland, then to Puerto Rico, where Roberto went in with fellow expatriate musicians on a Cuban café. The family later moved to Miami, where daughter Martha met and married Rafael Perez, who worked in real estate. The couple lived in southwest Miami-Dade, west of the Metrozoo and far inland. Hurricanes fizzle when they hit the coast, right? Wrong.

“We lost everything,” Rafael Perez said this month.

“It was just so much damage. It was such a disaster,” Rafael said. “We said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to leave.’”

Even before Andrew, Rafael said, the family had been considering opening a restaurant. Now, they looked first in the Orlando area. Then a friend tipped them to a spot at Forest Hill Boulevard and South Dixie Highway. Sold.

Roberto would be head chef. And the place would have one of those walk-up windows renowned in Miami where crowds gathered for coffee and conversation. They would name it for the capital of their native land: Havana. It opened in 1993.

Roberto died about three years ago. Marta comes in every once in a while to check in, Rafael said. The now-iconic Cuban eatery continues to thrive and added a second-story facade last year. Every once in a while, he said, an Andrew survivor stops by. Rafael still marvels that no one in his family was hurt that day.

“We were blessed. We were blessed,” he said. “I had 10 acres, and my neighbor who lived beside of me had 2½ acres. My pots and pans got into his kitchen window and into his refrigerator.”

Mitch Fraska: “That’s it. We’re done. We’re out.”

Even for a tough motorcycle cop, it’s not fun to go without power for 26 days. That’s what then-Plantation police Officer Mitch Fraska and his wife, Robin, went through at their home in Biscayne Park, north of Miami.

He’d spent days helping keep order during the post-storm chaos in Florida City, in the prime hurricane zone, his gun visible in his waistband. But it was an encounter at his own home with a peeping suspect a few months later that was the last straw. Mitch, out of uniform, chased the man about a half-mile and ended up in a fistfight in a bank parking lot. The men would be arrested and eventually deported.

“I looked at my wife and said, ‘That’s it. We’re done. We’re out.’”

He knew he wanted to leave Biscayne Park but to where?

“Everything south of me was destroyed still,” he said this month. “There was nowhere in Broward I wanted to move to.” That left Palm Beach.

Mitch wanted someplace with a lot of space for his kids, then 9, 7 and 6, so he looked at a development around State Road 7 and Lantana Road. Then, he said, “everyone kept mentioning The Acreage.” He had no illusions that he’d be moving to a crime-free zone. But, he said, his was “the seventh home on a 2-mile stretch of road. So I could see it (crime) coming.”

The Fraskas moved up in November 1993, 15 months after Andrew. They’ve been there since. The commute to Plantation now was 60 miles each way, but “it wasn’t terrible,” Mitch said.

He retired in 2010 after 27 years, 16 of them on a motorcycle.

The three kids grew up in The Acreage. One daughter has her own business and the other is a paralegal. Mitch’s son became a cop, just like Dad. And in Plantation. Just like Dad.

Regrets about moving to Palm Beach County? “Absolutely not.”

Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story



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