LAKELAND, Fla., Sept. 25, 2017 —
Vincent Dupree was a 22-year-old security guard at Miami's Cutler Ridge Mall when Hurricane Andrew roared through South Florida in 1992.
The Category 5 storm came with little warning, said Dupree, now an Army staff sergeant. He was at work and confident like many others that the storm was going to turn and miss Florida. Then, he heard what he said sounded like an approaching train.
"We took cover in the mall's brick corridors, and some of us held onto the doors as the whole building began to shake," he said.
Tornadoes spun off from the furious hurricane, hurling vehicles from the car dealership next door through the roof of the mall, Dupree said.
After it was over, he said the streets of Miami and Homestead were unrecognizable. Hurricane Andrew demolished tens of thousands of homes in Florida, caused more than $26 billion in damage and left 65 people dead.
"I couldn't even find my way driving home," Dupree said. "All trees, street signs and landmarks were completely gone. Houses were scattered down the streets."
The storm destroyed Dupree's home, and briefly disrupted the life the young man was working to build for himself. He had just purchased his first home two weeks before Andrew's landfall.
There were so few buildings remaining that were deemed safe enough to use as shelters that Dupree and his family had to live in one of the many tent cities that popped up in Andrew's wake. After a few weeks, he and his family were able to move into the skeletal structure of a relative's home, a gutted shell of what it used to be, he said.
‘I Know How to Help People’
"I learned a lot through that experience," Dupree said. "I know how to help people now if they ever go through something like this."
Twenty-five years after Hurricane Andrew, Dupree, a petroleum and supply specialist with the 82nd Airborne Division's 249th Quartermaster Composite Supply Company, has returned to the Sunshine State with his unit to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Florida in relief missions after Hurricane Irma, which struck Miami as a Category 4 hurricane.
This is Dupree's first natural disaster relief mission, and he said it is also the first mission of this kind for many soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division.
"All of the soldiers with the 82nd are motivated and eager to help," he said. "The unit is prepared to deploy anywhere within a 72-hour period, but they are excited and proud to directly help American citizens."
Dupree said the mood before a hurricane among native Floridians is a mixed feeling of panic and apathy. It is common, he said, for residents to "ride it out," shuttering up their homes and staying put rather than evacuating.
Even though Dupree had urged his family to evacuate, only his sister evacuated to North Carolina, while his three sons and his father stayed in Miami, as Dupree had done during Hurricane Andrew.
"My mom and I were pleading with my sons to get out," Dupree said. "Cities and buildings can be rebuilt, but there are other things that cannot."
While Dupree expressed relief that his family is unharmed, albeit still without power, he said he is hoping to help others around the state that may not be as fortunate.
"Some areas were rebuilt only to be right in the path of a storm again," Dupree said.
Dupree acknowledges that some parts of Florida -- just as parts of some other U.S. states or other areas in the world -- in a precarious position every hurricane season.
"Everywhere in the world has something, whether it's earthquakes or fires or tornadoes or hail," Dupree said. "For Florida, it's hurricanes, and you never know when it's going to be the big one."