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Flock of laborers descend on Dade

Big John McBride started his morning as he often does these days, by cracking open a beer.

Dried blood caked his neck and matted his hair, evidence of a moonlit brawl "over beer . . . I think," he said with a sheepish grin.

McBride saved up enough money to fly from Anchorage, Alaska, to Florida three weeks ago. He pitched his tent along the Dixie Highway north of Homestead.

"I work hurricanes, you know," said the 39-year-old east Texas native. "I worked Hugo, and now it's Andrew."

This man _ and hundreds like him _ want to rebuild south Dade County.

By pickup, by train, by thumb, laborers are flocking to the area flattened by Hurricane Andrew. Where some see devastation, they see a paycheck. They're not all welcome.

Insurance companies slow to pay claims and building inspectors determined to enforce tough new standards have checked the pace of reconstruction _ and the demand for workers.

In addition, union groups are trying to steer property owners toward licensed contractors who use union workers, and away from the people with "I do dry wall" spray-painted on the sides of their trucks.

On Friday, 30 local debris haulers parked their trucks outside the Miami temporary offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, complaining that out-of-state contractors are getting most of the cleanup duty.

FEMA and Corps officials promised to encourage local governments and contractors to hire locally when possible.

Phil May of FEMA said 53 percent of the debris removal subcontracts have been awarded, on a competitive basis, to local firms.

Too many out-of-towners "are unskilled, have no idea what the building codes are and are prone to shoddy workmanship," said John Lindstrom, an official with the Miami Building and Construction Trades Council.

"Obviously, when you have all that, you're going to build it back worse than it was before."

County officials have other concerns.

Unwelcome in tent cities and other federal facilities set up for residents victimized by Andrew, the laborers mostly are living in and around county parks where only the "No Camping" signs survived.

Assistant County Manager Tony Clemente said a plan is in the works to "reclaim the county parks." The hope is to find a temporary, centralized campsite for the laborers where they can live under more sanitary conditions, Clemente said.

Under the circumstances, many of the workers are in a foul mood.

In one camp, the laborers live in squalor. The few contractors who cruise in looking to hire drive over a bed of empty beer cans and campfire ashes.

Large sheets of plastic draped over the stumps of blown-down trees serve as shelter. Confederate flags hang from clotheslines. The workers bathe in a canal; they urinate wherever it seems convenient.

Many say they hope to make as much as $12 an hour, but now take $5 and curse the people paying it.

Rumors that the police are preparing to drive them out of town are rampant.

But Maj. Frank Boni, commander of Metro Dade Police's southern district, said the labor camps, although an eyesore, are not a concern given the area's other problems.

Lt. Col. Jim Watson of the Florida National Guard, which is helping police the area, said: "As a general rule, they drink too much and get in disputes with each other _ that's about it."

James Hartsock, a 37-year-old roofer from Arkansas, agreed.

"You know, the thing is 90 percent of them just sit around and get drunk all day," he said as he surveyed the camp.

"Of course, I sat around and got drunk yesterday, too."