Recovery: Florida City Rebuilds after Monster Hurricane

How Homestead, Fla., climbed back after Hurricane Andrew's wrath.

by / September 29, 2008 0
Rebounding: Starting Over Photo by Bob Epstein/FEMA

The day after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, a bank CEO stuffed $5,000 in his pockets and walked the streets, handing out $50 and $100 bills to whomever needed food or water.

"We had so many needy people," recalled Bob Epling, president and CEO of the Community Bank of Florida.

Epling's gesture was a tiny first step in what would be an eight-year effort to get Homestead, Fla., back on its feet in the wake of Andrew.

The monster storm struck Homestead and surrounding areas, including nearby Florida City, on Aug. 24. By the time it was over, Homestead had been wiped off the map; neighborhoods vanished and shopping malls and condominiums were sheared to their foundations.

Homestead Air Force Base, the employer of more than 8,000 people and the core of the local middle class, was torn apart.

In south Dade County, 82,000 businesses were destroyed or damaged and 100,000 residents left the area permanently after the storm. The blow to the tax base was a major hindrance in the rebuilding effort.

Looting broke out, adding criminality to the general sense of chaos that stymied relief efforts in the early days. Rogue contractors, some with no experience or credentials, collected cash with the promise of roof repairs and promptly disappeared.

Government was slow to respond to a storm whose magnitude had never before been encountered. At first, no one seemed to grasp the severity of the damage.

"It is my understanding that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] actually found out about our problem on CNN three days later," Epling said. When help began arriving, Epling said it lacked organization and arrived piecemeal.

Getting Started
Things began to change when the situation drew attention from the very top. Then-City Manager Alex Muxo contacted local political heavy hitter Jeb Bush, whose father promptly answered his phone in the Oval Office and got a four-star general on scene, along with a contingent of brass.

"Nobody could really understand the devastation without seeing it for themselves," said Muxo, now senior vice president of investment conglomerate Huizenga Holdings.

In the days after the storm, the immediate tasks were to restore order and deliver humanitarian aid - twin missions accomplished largely by the U.S. Army Mountain Division and the National Guard.

The Army set up operations in a 60-acre park across from City Hall. Aided by local police, all hands joined to clear the streets around the hospital, police station and power plant.

The electrical grid was demolished, but the plant still worked. The city bought electricity from around the nation and distributed it through rapidly repaired main transmission lines. Even so, Epling said it took 43 days for the lights to go back on in his partially destroyed home; others waited longer.

The National Guard and local forces kept order, in part through a three-month-long curfew.

Organizing the Effort
Meanwhile, a response that began unevenly soon began to take formal shape. Alvah Chapman, then-head of the local paper, The Miami Herald, invited Epling to help establish the nonprofit We Will Rebuild committee. The private group petitioned for government assistance and coordinated the spending of millions of dollars in private donations.

The group raised $27 million, which Epling said it leveraged into $3 billion to $5 billion in buying power. The committee spent the money not just on direct relief, but also on the services of paid professionals who surveyed the area and lobbied state and federal officials. "We invest in an airline ticket, someone flies up there and a foundation in Washington gives us a million dollars," Epling said. "That's how you leverage money."

Money was an issue throughout the rebuilding effort, of course, with a devastated tax base and the

near ruin of the region's infrastructure.

The state played a pivotal role in ensuring cash flow, said Otis Wallace, mayor of Florida City since 1984. The city lies adjacent to Homestead.

Wallace said Dade County was generating vast tax revenues in the wake of the storm, with the effort to rebuild spurring sales of lumber, concrete and other building supplies. Instead of distributing those taxes evenly statewide, as is the usual practice, the Legislature created a hurricane trust fund, reappropriating the tax money to ensure revenue remained in the county.

Private philanthropy also did its part, from the large-scale efforts of the Red Cross to initiatives by smaller relief groups, including faith-based programs, such as Project Teamwork.

"We didn't have any water or electricity. My job was literally blown away. My parents lost their house; my sister lost her house; my brother lost his house," recalled B.J. Behnken, who helped organize Project Teamwork after the hurricane. "We would work with whatever kinds of volunteers showed up. At first we just canvassed the neighborhood with personal items, leaving soap and shampoo at every house." Buses full of schoolchildren rolled in to offer help.

Over time, project teamwork raised $10 million from state sources and hired professional builders. The effort eventually helped rebuild 900 homes.

Crossing Jurisdictional Lines
While private efforts offered a positive sign, Wallace said, the cooperation between government entities was even more heartening.

"The thing that gave me hope right away was the banding together of other jurisdictions," he said.

Wallace met with Gov. Lawton Chiles the day after the storm. Sitting in a McDonald's restaurant - one of the few surviving buildings - he stared out the window in surprise as a convoy of relief workers and equipment arrived from the Florida Keys. Monroe County had braced for the worst and when the storm skirted past, county offices took the resources to Dade.

"I didn't know these folks, they didn't know me, and yet there they were cleaning our streets for us without any question of who would pay for it or anything like that," Wallace said. Another hopeful sign was the response of the insurance companies that sent in rotating teams of adjusters to maintain a steady stream of check writing.

Even with all those efforts, Epling said, it took about eight years to put the city truly back on its feet. Many say the region came out better than it started.

Newer and Better
Working from a clean slate, Homestead implemented a new fiber-optic telecommunications backbone.

New homes and commercial structures were built to meet higher standards of sturdiness and survivability.

A new Miami-Dade Community College has drawn more than 5,000 students. The local Air Force base has reopened, though with a fraction of its former headcount.

Perhaps most significantly, the region is undergoing a building boom. With land scarce in metro Miami, a residential land rush is increasing Homestead's tax base and median income.

While aid groups such as We Will Rebuild advanced Homestead's physical reconstruction, Epling said the psychological impact of their efforts was equally important.

"It wasn't so much the dollars. What a lot of these organizations did was just give people hope," said Epling. "In addition to the bricks and mortar, you had to give people hope that there was going to be something there, that this was a chance to rebuild."

Adam Stone Contributing Writer