‘Panic’: Mother fled Hurricane Andrew, pregnant with ANJ reporter at the time

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Wednesday marks 30 years since Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. The mother of Action News Jax’s reporter Jessica Barreto shared what it was like to evacuate and come back to widespread destruction.

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Hurricane Andrew made its Florida landfall as a Category 5 hurricane at around 5 a.m. in the morning on Aug. 24, 1992. The First Alert Weather Team says it had winds up to 170 miles an hour.

The storm, which killed 65 people, still brings back vivid memories for Janet Peña, who was eight months pregnant with Action News Jax reporter Jessica Barreto when she decided to evacuate her home in North Miami. They both sat down to share Peña’s story with Chief Meteorologist Mike Buresh.

“Janet, tell us what you experienced during Hurricane Andrew,” Buresh prompted.

“Panic,” she replied. “We didn’t realize how bad [the] hurricane [was].”

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“My parents had moved from Colombia so they had never experienced a hurricane,” Barreto explained. “They knew that a storm was coming, but I don’t think they appreciated the magnitude or the gravity.”

“She had [voice] messages from her relatives in Tampa saying you need to come here, stay with us, you’re going to be safe with us,” Barreto continued. “Her doctor [also left messages saying] ‘If you have not left, you need to come to the hospital right now, we have a bed for you.’ The only caveat with that is she couldn’t take my dad with her because they were at capacity. That’s when it kicked in that, ‘This is serious and we need to act right now.’”

“She decides at 5 o’clock the day before Andrew hits, to get on the road to Tampa,” Barreto pointed out. “Everyone is doing the same thing. There’s gridlock everywhere.”

“The highway was like a parking lot,” Peña described. “[There was] no way to move and I was eight months pregnant. I had to walk a little bit. People were really worried about me. Basically [it] took eight hours to get to Tampa.”

“They made it to Tampa on a spare tire because they were not prepared for this trip,” Barreto shared. “I get goosebumps when [my mom] tells me this story because I just can’t believe it.”

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Peña came back two days later to find destruction at every turn. In total, there were about $26 billion in damages.

“[I] saw that devastation. [It] was terrible,” Peña recalled. “Buildings [were] gone. Power line cables, all of them, on the ground.”

“[It] took like three months for us to have electricity and water,” Peña remembered. “The seaweed was all around my patio. Like the sea came into my house.”

Lawmakers learned many structures weren’t built to handle this storm, so they changed Florida’s building codes to make structures more wind resistant and to improve roofing standards.

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In the aftermath, Peña also learned a valuable lesson.

“Now I have respect for the [weather] institutions, for the warnings, because we had a good warning. We received a warning for two days, so that’s why you are doing a good job,” she told Buresh. “I respect you.”

Since Florida is now entering peak hurricane season, this anniversary is a timely reminder to have your evacuation plan and your emergency kit supplies ready.

You can download our 2022 Hurricane Guide HERE.