In the eye of the storm

Dennis Erickson can relate to what his opponent is going through this week, and it has nothing to do with football. Erickson, you see, once stood in the eye of the storm when he coached at Miami, just like the New Orleans Saints are preparing to do now with Hurricane Ivan approaching the region. Erickson lost his home when Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami in 1992, and he can tell you firsthand what the fear and devastation of that experience is like, because he was in the middle of it.

"I have tremendous feeling for those people," Erickson said during a few moments of reflection after Wednesday's 49ers practice. "I know exactly what they are going through. That and the aftermath, regardless of where it hits, you don't know until you've been through it."

Erickson has been through it, all right. Hurricane Andrew was the most destructive hurricane on record in United States history, causing $25.5 billion in damage in south Florida alone with a peak gust of 177 mph.

Erickson's home was included in that damage. It was leveled.

But when the hurricane finally raged through, he was more worried about other things. Like his life.

"You just don't know. You don't know what is going to happen. You're scared for everything," Erickson said.

When Andrew hit the city, Erickson was in the midst of preparing for the beginning of his fourth season at Miami after winning his second national championship at the school the year before. Some of his assistants and their families opted to go to the university campus for shelter with the storm approaching. Erickson opted to stay in the neighborhood near his home in south Miami, taking shelter with one of his assistants, Rich Olson, whose home had hurricane shutters.

"It was just devastating," Erickson said. "I was with Rich Olson in his house in the closet. It blew right through it. We didn't know if it was going to hit there, and then all of a sudden it turned. We saw it firsthand. It blew right through his window. Where we were at was where it hit the worst."

After the storm passed, Erickson said, the impact of the ordeal really hit.

"Probably as devastating as anything is when you walk out the next day and there's sunshine, and it's just leveled," he said. "My whole house was destroyed."

Erickson hadn't been able to get any of his belongings out of his home before the storm arrived. He had locked his golden retriever, Champ, in his garage, thinking that the dog would be safe there.

"It wasn't," Erickson said.

But there was a happy ending for Champ. He survived the hurricane and made it over to a neighbor's home. When Erickson came back to look for his pet, Champ came running down the street about 15 minutes after Erickson began filtering through the damage.

Erickson's defending national champions were in two-a-day practices at the time, so the whole team and program packed up and moved north to Vero Beach, an area that hadn't been hit by the storm. Erickson and his squad lived and practiced there until they played their season opener against Iowa. They came back to Miami after the game.

Erickson said the aftermath was not pretty. There was price-gouging and looting in the area as the people of the Miami region regrouped. Erickson rebuilt his home and moved on with his life and successful coaching career before leaving Miami to become head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 1995.

But the experience left him with some somber words for the people of the Gulf Coast region as Ivan approaches.

"My suggestion to anybody is when they tell you to evacuate, get the hell out of there – fast," Erickson said.

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