Andrew's survivors grow tired 4 months later, life still far from normal

December 30, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

KENDALL, Fla. -- Al Bencomo is one of Hurricane Andrew's walking wounded.

A nonstop life of work, commuting and house-rebuilding has left him exhausted. He sprained his ankle working on the roof, and he's pretty sure the pain in his gut is an ulcer.

Mr. Bencomo, his wife, Shannon, and their two children have been cooped up with her parents north of Miami since Aug. 24, the day Andrew blew apart most of southern Dade County. Each day, Mr. Bencomo makes a two-hour, 80-mile round trip to his job as a fire department rescue squad supervisor at a station not far from his home here.

Still several weeks away from moving back in, Mr. Bencomo, 39, marches stoically ahead, intent on recapturing the family's comfortable way of life in the Country Walk neighborhood in this community southwest of Miami. "I owe it to the neighborhood," he says.

Shannon Bencomo is not so sure.

"If we had to do it again, I wouldn't do it," she says, peering up at their partially rebuilt house as she holds their 10-month-old son. "It's going to be years and years and years before there's any semblance of community here. We could be in a house somewhere else and our lives could be back together."

Two days after Andrew hit, a reporter from The Sun found residents of this neighborhood of sprawling, mostly single-story, houses dazed and unsure about the future.

Now, after months of haggling with insurance adjusters and contractors, finding new schools for their children, worrying about looters, living in other people's homes, enduring snarled traffic and coping with heavy stress, those same families are simply weary.

"I feel like my real life stopped with Andrew. This is all a dream," says Debbie Curtin, a backyard neighbor of the Bencomos. "I go to work. My daughter goes to school. Time goes by. But nothing is the way it's supposed to be. It's very unsettling."

Almost all of the 1,550 homes in the middle-class community of Country Walk were destroyed by Andrew's 175 mph winds and rain.

Construction crews work steadily on houses throughout the development, but many others sit abandoned, rotting as their owners figure out what to do with them. With a scarcity of contractors, no one is sure when those houses will be rebuilt.

Contractor Larry Gershen figures he could finish the work on his damaged house on S.W. 153rd Court in a matter of days if he wanted. But he doesn't like the idea of being the first family back in a neighborhood now populated solely by out-of-town workers living in trailers.

"There are a lot of animals working out here," says Mr. Gershen, 39, on a recent rainy afternoon.

He, his wife, Becky, their two children and two cats lived in an extra room in a friend's house for three weeks after the storm. They found a two-bedroom apartment only five miles from Country Walk, but the strain of a makeshift life is building.

"It's the little things," Ms. Gershen says, such as the night she couldn't get the barbecue grill lighted. "I beat the hell out of it," she says.

Ed and Linda Marcotte are living in an unfurnished apartment while their house around the corner from the Gershens' is being rebuilt. Their new post-hurricane vista, to the west of their Country Walk house and across the empty farmland, includes three enormous mountains composed entirely of Andrew's debris.

"That's the new Dade County," Linda Marcotte says of the trash.

The Marcottes and their two daughters spent seven weeks living in a friend's living room. The only power came from a generator that ran a refrigerator but nothing else.

"When you went to bed, you would just wipe the sweat off of your face," says Mr. Marcotte, an airline pilot.

"But we had food on the table every day, and I'd say we were relatively happy," says Mr. Marcotte. "I'd say we really rearranged our priorities."

His frustration would grow each time he drove north of Miami to pick up supplies. "You're saying, 'It's not fair.' These people have a normal life," he remembers thinking. "Do they know what is going on here?"

Andrew hit the neighborhood's oldest couple, Ramon and Maria Torres-Sal, harder than most.

They have found an apartment 50 miles north of Country Walk and wait for their home to be rebuilt, by no means the peaceful retirement they envisioned when they moved from Ohio a few years ago.

"I've lost so many things, family pictures, nice things," Mrs. Torres-Sal, 68, says in a small, faraway voice as she sits in the shade behind her home. "I'm not going to buy nice things again. Why should I?"

Mr. Torres-Sal says he has lost interest in the many citrus trees he planted, all of which were destroyed in the storm.

"I am losing interest for my garden, for my plants," he says. "I want to come back, but I don't have the same feeling."

One of the neighborhood's youngest couples, Joe and Susan Cangiano, wasted no time in leaving after the storm. They sold their house behind the Gershens' to the first family that inquired. They are building a house near Fort Lauderdale in a neighborhood they had always liked.

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