Southern Dade County 'finished,' official says 40,000 homeless may be low count

August 26, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Stunned victims of Hurricane Andrew yesterday began cleaning up the astonishing mess left by one of the most destructive storms in American history.

The storm's death toll stood at 14 in south Florida alone, and its damage was estimated at up to $20 billion, almost three times as much as the loss from Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina in 1989.

Yesterday brought some sense that authorities' control was returning as crews started removing trees from some roads, and police patrolled many places.

But an estimated 1 million people still were without water, even more without power or phones, and help for the truly devastated was barely apparent.

Officials said 40,000 people were left homeless in south Florida, but that figure seemed low.

While no part of the Miami area went unscathed by Monday's storm, the worst destruction came to several less-affluent areas in southern Dade County.

In Homestead, a town of 27,000, almost nothing is left. Churches, schools and businesses were in ruins.

Shops on Krome Street, the town's main street, are wiped out. The roofs and walls of countless homes disappeared, exposing rooms with furniture still standing like stage sets ready for a play.

The town's five trailer parks, where several thousand people had lived, had all but vanished. In their place were vast piles of twisted metal and crushed cars. Shell-shocked residents wandered about, picking at the debris while police dogs sniffed for trapped victims.

Florida City, a small town next door, might have to be bulldozed entirely. The state's huge wholesale farmers' market there was ripped apart by Andrew's 160 mph gusts. Denuded trees became eerie sculpture, wrapped haphazardly in pieces of metal blown off of buildings.

To the west, mile after mile of farmland was devastated. The wind uprooted countless avocado trees, blew away all their leaves and most of their bark, leaving fields full of bare, twisted limbs. The avocados were scattered around the limbs, fired deep into the mud like bullets. Likewise, vast tracts of lemon and Persian lime trees were destroyed.

"Dade County as we know it, especially from the Kendall area south, is never going to be the same," said Kate Hale, county emergency management director. "It is fundamentally destroyed. It's gone. It's over. It's finished."

At what remained of the Cove Oasis Mobile Home Park in Florida City, John DeLapaz peered at his trailer home, buried beneath his neighbor's, which had been blown up onto his, steel base and all.

Everything inside the trailer, as well as his car and motorcycle, was destroyed.

"I had three months left to pay on the trailer and I would have owned the whole thing," said Mr. DeLapaz, a maintenance worker at a local hotel. "I only owed $380. Now I can't even get that much in scrap."

Mr. DeLapaz, 29, like many of his neighbors, had no insurance.

"I'm wiped out, totally wiped out," he said.

What he has is $18 in his pocket and a few pieces of clothing salvaged from the wreckage.

Just across from the Cove Oasis, a dozen people, including three children under the age of six, methodically looted a Fina convenience store, toting out boxes of soda, beer and candy.

The looting spree halted when two carloads of Florida state troopers arrived, brandishing machine guns and automatic pistols.

"All we got is soda," shouted one disappointed woman as her companion got in their car. "Let's get the out of here."

The police arrested nobody.

Despite a 7 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew, and the presence of hundreds of extra police officers and National Guard troops, some looting continued and the authorities reported several dozen arrests.

Across Dade County, the roads were jammed. There were almost no working traffic lights, and most of the road signs were gone.

In one of several makeshift distribution centers, a reported 5,000 people lined up for drinking water. Lines for gasoline stretched for blocks.

Just the rumor that water was being delivered to the Homestead Middle School created an instant line of 50 people in the sticky 95-degree heat.

"You better give these people something or they'll keep looting," declared Louise Staggers, a Florida City woman who came looking for water. "You have so many people in Florida City who have no place to go."

Betty Gardner, 46, is considering going north to live with her brother or aunt in Lakeland. The mobile home where she and her husband, Jim, lived was flattened beneath two others.

"I have really no idea what we will do," Mrs. Gardner said.

As sort of an evil omen, Mr. Gardner, 45, was laid off Friday from his job at the Homestead Air Force Base medical center.

The base itself, the main employer in the area, was all but wiped out by the storm.

"There's a lot of people who are going to have to find a new way to live," said Henry Eichenger, a 50-year-old supervisor at the air base. Now that it's cut down, they'll probably close it."

Farming, the other major industry in the area, suffered "major damage," reported Florida Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr.

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