Thousands face mile after mile of ruined dreams


September 06, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When Hurricane Andrew rolled across South Florida nearly two weeks ago, it left a tiny Third World country in its wake, a place that used to be south Dade County.

The new nation lives under curfew and martial law, on a landscape of ruin that stretches on and on, 160 square miles in all.

It is a warren of the humbled and homeless, who line up for handouts by the thousands. They have no schools, no churches. Ice is a luxury, telephones are a novelty and spray-painted graffiti are a leading form of communication. Electricity is a remote dream that won't be realized for months.

The president of the United States has visited twice, each time making generous promises. But for all the talk of rebuilding, the most optimistic know it will be a painful crawl that could take years. And even then, when this place again becomes south Dade County, it will be changed forever.

New nation of south Dade

In the new nation of south Dade, the day begins like this: Six twin-engine DC-3s, the same vintage as the one in the farewell scene in "Casablanca," take off in the first light of the sun.

They wheel in formation, as white as sea gulls against the sky, then lower to within a hundred feet of the ground, wingtip to wingtip above the destruction of the storm. The pilots open the valves of sprayers on each wing, and a dozen white contrails of insecticide stream from the roaring formation.

The spray floats to the ground in a choking cloud, blanketing destroyed homes, tent cities, and lines of hungry people at food depots and mobile kitchens. Packs of lean, haggard dogs yowl and run for cover.

Dazed, blinking children cower, clinging to the legs of their parents. A grimy-faced woman gathering sticks for a fire looks up, squinting into the drifting haze. And before long every place on the ground smells like somebody just emptied a half-strength can of Raid.

But for everyone who has been up half the night swatting mosquitoes in tents and torn homes, this dawn patrol is a welcome sight. But it has yet to win the war. Each thunder shower builds a hatchery for the next generation of mosquitoes, and the inexhaustible army of bugs keeps coming. Now there is talking of calling in the U.S. Air Force for reinforcements.

'It's like a nuke hit'

For most people who have come here since the storm, the biggest shock is not so much the severity of the devastation as its sweep and breadth.

Army Staff Sgt. David Ware, who saw war zones and other disasters in three tours of duty in Germany, had seen plenty of the televised footage of Andrew by the time he flew down with a relief mission from Fort Drum, N.Y. He figured he was prepared.

He wasn't.

"It was much worse than I imagined," he said. "It's like a nuke hit."

To begin to grasp why the devastation defies translation on the small screen, one need only drive the last 15 miles of expressway between Miami and Homestead.

The route passes about 16 large neighborhoods sprawling out from both sides of the highway. In each, rooftop after rooftop is stripped of tiles, then staved in at one spot or another, or else collapsed altogether. Windows are blown out. Plastic patches flap in the breeze. Defoliated, uprooted trees lean against walls like giant tumbleweeds.

But even assuming that each of these 16 neighborhoods has 200 homes, and that all of those homes are irreparably damaged, the views along this 15-mile drive account for only about 5 percent of the estimated 63,000 homes left uninhabitable by the storm.

If that's not enough, one can view the place from the air at night. Heading south from Fort Lauderdale, the heavy development of South Florida stretches down the Atlantic coast in a swath of a thousand lights, glittering like sequins.

Then a little south of downtown Miami it all stops, dropping into a void spattered with a few glowing dots. It's almost as if it was again 1912, just before the crews of Henry Flagler hacked their way south to lay down the first line of railway to the Keys.

But in the same way that rapid development changed the face of south Dade County in the two decades before the storm, the rebuilding will again bring radical change, and not all of it will be good for many residents who were hit the hardest.

First, there are the mobile home parks that were literally wiped out by Andrew. Homestead officials are talking of banning mobile homes. Soon bulldozers will begin clearing the wrecked ones to make way for government trailer homes that will serve as temporary housing.

"That will mean a lot less housing for low-income people," said Homestead resident Doug Brown, standing in his wrecked neighborhood. "And there are a lot of poor people around here in some of these towns like Florida City.

"It will be very different around here. Maybe they'll even do a better job this time, maybe the homes will be better, but it won't be the same."

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