September 29, 2008 By Adam Stone
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."
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