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diary of DEVASTATION

Published Aug. 30, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

Last Sunday seems a long time ago. Last week, as I traveled through unchanging scenes of devastation, I thought that words could not encompass what Hurricane Andrew did to Dade County. And I knew that a traveler, entering this wasteland with sandwiches and soda bottles in a minivan, could not comprehend the growing despair of people left hungry, thirsty and homeless.

So consider these reflections a mere snapshot here and there, the words of someone with a still camera trying to shoot an episode of Hill Street Blues. Picture a disaster happening around you in a hundred places at once, while somewhere, a voice calls out to everyone, "Be careful out there."

Sunday: A balmy evening in Miami. Andrew, a category 4 hurricane, is a hundred miles offshore and coming right at us. It doesn't seem possible. At 11 o'clock there are stars in the sky. A pleasant summer breeze is blowing off the ocean.

Sometime after midnight I go to bed, knowing I won't sleep. My room is in a two-story HoJo's near Miami International Airport. The hurricane is gusting over 150 miles per hour. What does that mean? I have no idea. I have never been near a wind like that. Lying in bed, I worry that the storm surge will flood an airport that, not long ago, was part of the Everglades.

Andrew arrives in the wee hours, first with spikes of rain driven in thin lines across the roof, then with a roar that swells and fades, hurling objects against the walls. Finally, in the faint light of dawn, comes a blessed silence.

Monday: The phone is dead. No lights. No television. There is water, the last I will drink from a tap in Dade County.

My rented minivan is parked in front of a telephone pole that stood through the storm. What luck, I realize, to have a working vehicle, gas, a radio _ and cash. Already the consequences of a massive power outage are obvious. Gas pumps won't work. Banks and their cash machines will be closed. Stores will be closed. Food won't be refrigerated.

On the radio, people in Miami sound relieved. Andrew could have been worse, they say. The feared storm surge didn't happen. There are trees and utility poles in the road, but not much water. It was a dry hurricane. The streets are an eerie place to be. Traffic lights are out. Street signs are gone. On the highways, overhead signs and their metal bracing dangle in twisted heaps across the road. I turn south, on a road I identify as the Florida Turnpike when I see the wreckage of toll booth stations spanning it.

About 10 miles south of downtown Miami, Hurricane Andrew starts to look much worse.

Houses, stores and cars seem to have lost every window that faced east. Everywhere, chunks of house roofs are missing. Strip mall stores have been refashioned as lookalike shells piled with debris. I pull off the highway, stop on a street half-blocked by a fallen utility pole. The air smells of leaking gas.

Stepping over power lines into a back yard, I find Manuel Inclan and his family salvaging a television set and a sewing machine from their new house. He steps outside, through what must have been a sliding glass door or a large picture window. He says he bought the house four days ago for $73,000, he says.

"I don't know if the insurance company pays in this case," he says worriedly.

"Too bad, man," he says, shaking his head. "I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do now. You see I can't stay here. My sister's house is like this . . . "

Hours later, after a drive north to find a working phone and a convenience store with food and water, I turn south again. The radio broadcasts repeated warnings that water in Broward and Dade counties may be contaminated. Boil it for 10 minutes, one person advises. Boil it for 20, another says. Traffic is thickening along the turnpike as I drive toward the eye of the departed hurricane, a city of 30,000 people about 30 miles south of Miami. Homestead.

Tuesday: There is no adequate way to describe the destruction here.

Nearly every house in Homestead is uninhabitable, but people are living in them anyway. Some sit on lawns outside houses that lack windows or a roof. Others are picking through the rubble of mobile homes that split open like pea pods, spilling their contents on the ground.

Every business in the city is closed. Its water lines are broken. Its municipal power plant has lost all but one of its 18 engines, which doesn't matter for now. Power lines are strewn everywhere. On some streets utility poles snapped in two without falling, and skeins of wires droop over the road. Through the city the rumor spreads that Homestead Air Force Base is damaged beyond repair and will never reopen. The spring training stadium Homestead built for the Cleveland Indians, ready to open next spring, has lost its luxury suites, press box roof and scoreboard.

City Hall survived, with broken windows and a damaged roof that Hurricane Andrew lifted off and dropped back on the walls. With phones and electricity, but no water, it has become Homestead's survival center. People seeking food, water and shelter come here. Mothers looking for diapers come here. People bringing food and water come here. Volunteers show up here. National Guard troops report here, asking for directions in a city without street signs. The place is chaotic. One man walks up and asks me, "Are you in charge?"

Nobody is in charge. The Dade County emergency operations center in Miami, evidently overwhelmed by the disaster, has sent no representatives here. Against impossible odds, the city employees who returned to work are performing heroically. Homeless police officers are reporting to duty and sleeping at the station. While they round up looters and ship them off to the county jail, City Manager Alex Muxo requests and receives permission to raid a Publix supermarket so he can feed city workers and volunteers.

Sonia Rubino, a middle-aged code enforcement officer, is at City Hall day and night, taking calls for help and offers of donations. Her own home is gone. "This is my office and my house," she says with a smile, shoving aside a suitcase as she looks for a city map that shows where the mobile home parks were.

Mike Carl, a 42-year-old unemployed welder, sifts through the debris around a mobile home. Its roof and walls are gone. Its floor is empty except for an overturned washing machine. "I found my penicillin," he announces happily.

From South Carolina, the state devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a volunteer team of hurricane recovery workers has shown up in Homestead, broken into a padlocked middle school and opened the city's only emergency shelter.

City Hall starts sending people to the school for food, water and shelter. Water is scarce. With a hundred people waiting in line, a volunteer announces the water is gone. One man mutters that somebody is going to get shot if there's no water. Otherwise, the crowd response is remarkably peaceful, perhaps because an armed National Guardsman faces the front of the line.

Inside the shelter, a woman neatly dressed in pink slacks and a striped shirt is sitting on the floor. Her name is Christina Green. She works as a teaching assistant at a nearby grade school, and a boy who recognized her has given her his water. Her husband works at the Turkey Point nuclear plant, which was damaged but survived the hurricane. They had a house, with shade trees, on 1 1/2 acres of land. The house and trees are gone. They found somebody else's front door lying where their house used to be.

Wednesday: Back to Homestead. After a night at the home of a fellow journalist north of Miami, I head south again with food, bottled water, soda and a fresh tank of gas. After watching people get turned away from a water line, I have brushed my teeth with orange-flavored La Croix water from a 7-11 store.

Hoping to discourage sightseers and relieve gridlock, the National Guard has set up checkpoints on the highways to Homestead. On highway 997, about 10 miles inland, I find no roadblocks, but the hurricane damage is every bit as devastating. Rural houses have been crushed. At tree nurseries, the trees lie in parallel lines on the ground. Scarves of the black plastic that shaded them are wrapped around fences, houses, cars. Cars without windshields are moving up and down the road. One passenger has his feet propped on the hood.

Power lines still block some streets to this highway, rendering departure by car impossible. A dead cow lies beside the road. There is so much debris, so many fallen trees, that clearing it all away seems impossible.

In Homestead, some of the trees that fell around City Hall have been cleared away, and portable toilets have been set up to replace its bathrooms, which are closed and smell of urine. Elsewhere there are few signs of a cleanup effort. Everything looks just as awful as yesterday.

With an emergency generator, one Homestead gas station has opened. A line three blocks long has formed.

Maria Danzot, a pregnant young woman with three small children, is sitting on a cot at the shelter. Two of the children are sleeping beside her. The other is with her husband, who has gone to protect the television set in their storm-wrecked home from looters. He worked at a Checkers restaurant, which is gone. They have no cash, and she says she is glad they had no car, because it would have been destroyed.

They stayed home through the storm. "Our kitchen blew out. We had to hide in the closet," she says. "One of the rooms, it looked like Poltergeist. A bed was flying around. It was terrifying."

She has not left the building at all today. "I don't even want to look out there. It's so ugly," she says.

At the shelter, and at a nearby field hospital set up by a federal Special Operations Rescue Team, hundreds of people come for first aid and emergency medical care. Some come for treatment of chronic illnesses exacerbated by a lack of medicine. Others come with hurricane-related injuries and ailments _ puncture wounds, skin infections, heat exhaustion, dehydration.

Dr. Roy Alson, the federal program's assistant medical director, says most hurricane-related injuries occur after the storm, when people try to clean up the mess. "We're only on Day 2," he says. "The chain saw massacre hasn't started."

It is a sunny day, with a high of 94 degrees. Outside the shelter another long line has formed, this time for food and clothing.

"These people, as I understand it, have been standing here since 7 o'clock this morning," says Dr. Ari Keden, a psychotherapist volunteering for the American Red Cross. He describes how a woman begged him for a blanket, and then he starts to cry. "How can you live with kids sleeping on the floor?" he asks.

At 7 p.m., a curfew is imposed throughout Dade County, and hundreds of people waiting for food are sent home hungry. Two hours later, an Army Reserve unit rolls up to the shelter with 15 truckloads of donated food and water that nobody is around to eat or drink.

At City Hall, assistant city manager Chris Bezruki admits that Homestead's municipal government was "not equipped to address the basic needs of the citizens _ food, water, shelter," but nobody can blame him for not trying.

He has been here since Sunday, when he left a Chamber of Commerce goals conference at a Key Largo resort to get ready for the hurricane. He was here during the hurricane, with the city manager and both of their families. At the height of the storm, they took refuge in the city vault. After the roof lifted off they went to the basement, praying they wouldn't drown in the storm surge.

Bezruki has worked, lived and slept at City Hall. His home is unihabitable. He looks weary. "How do you plan for something like this, where 90 percent of your residences or apartments are destroyed?" he asks. "How do you plan for the day your community is entirely displaced?"

Thursday: Goodbye to Homestead.

I hope it exists next year. Some fine people live there. It didn't have a plan to meet the basic needs of its citizens after one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history, but who will blame Homestead for this disaster?

The county could have done more for Miami's poor cousin down the road, but it also had an overwhelming set of problems. Bad water, overflowing sewers, crippled telephone and electric systems, thousands of people in homeless shelters and a unknown number of bodies under the rubble, to name a few.

Four days after Andrew, the state and federal governments have recognized the scope of desperation in Dade County. Gov. Lawton Chiles is calling for federal help. President George Bush is sending in troops. I think of something Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo said _ that it would have been nice to have temporary housing ready to move to such disasters. He didn't even have a place to put volunteers.

It would have been even nicer if someone had thought of that before Hurricane Andrew.

On Alligator Alley, as I go west, convoys of trucks stream east. Tree choppers. Public works trucks. Army trucks. Garbage trucks.

South of them, the monkeys have escaped from Monkey Jungle. And a human civilization waits to be rebuilt.

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