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Andrew called 'Vietnam of disaster relief' U.S. military found wanting by victims


MIAMI -- It was the U.S. military that first coined the term SNAFU -- Situation Normal, All Fouled Up -- so perhaps it's fitting that, for many beleaguered residents of south Dade County, the term sums up the Army's performance to date in leading the limping charge to recovery in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

Granted, it is an unenviable role in an almost impossible situation. Not only is the disaster unprecedented in this country for its damage, leaving at least 175,000 people homeless, but the Army is also playing to two demanding audiences -- one a weary throng of clamoring, short-tempered victims who have lost most of their worldly possessions, the other an anxious commander-in-chief fretting about his re-election.

But even accounting for that, the general consensus among many on the civilian side of the effort is that Hurricane Andrew has become the Vietnam of disaster relief. Not only does the Army keep sending more troops only to discover there still aren't enough, but local and state officials say soldiers will be needed around here far longer than the Army generals want to admit.

"Our job is to get in and get out," four-star Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan said Sunday after touring the area and before reporting to President Bush yesterday. He said as many as 25,000 troops could eventually be called here, and he figured it would take no more than about 30 days before most of them would go home.

But at their slow rate of arrival, it might take almost that long for all of them just to get here.

A week after the storm struck only 6,900 had arrived, although Army officials said the rest of the troops were expected to arrive by last night.

By Sunday, Bill Hale, appointed to head the cleanup effort in the small town of Florida City, got so exasperated with the delays that he told other town officials, "The hell with the Army. Let them go back to Iraq. Maybe we ought to get Hussein over here and maybe they'd get down here real quick."

Lt. Col. Steve Ritter, an Army spokesman, said yesterday that he understands the frustration. But he insisted there has been a lot of "invisible progress, stuff that we see that the public doesn't see."

For instance?

"We hope to get the radios [10,000 battery-operated radios to be distributed to people living without electricity] within the next few hours," Colonel Ritter said. "We're picking up the trash, we're bringing in the bathrooms."

As for not bringing in enough troops fast enough to help during the most trying days just after the storm, Colonel Ritter said, "You can decide to come in and bring 50,000 men without making any assessment, but this isn't a race. If we had done that we would have spent half our efforts coordinating the guys providing the support [for the soldiers]."

One thing there's been no shortage of is generals. There was the visit by General Sullivan, with four stars. Commanding the Army's effort here is Lt. Gen. Sam Ebbensen, with three stars. Appointed yesterday to head one sector of the effort is Brig. Gen. Carl Ernst. And a fresh arrival yesterday was a two-star general, Maj. Gen. Stephen Arnold, who will head efforts in the Homestead sector.

But lack of troop strength is hardly the biggest complaint directed against the Army. Indeed, by yesterday afternoon, even though the Army force was only up to about half strength, soldiers seemed to be everywhere.

The greater complaint is that at times no one seems to be in charge. Local officials sometimes wait for the Army to act, while the Army defers to local officials.

At times, the various bosses have literally had trouble communicating with each other. The various radios and cellular phones used by different groups have been on different frequencies, a situation that has not only made a mess of communications but has also become an apt metaphor for the effort to date: No one's on the same wavelength.

Take the case of the caterer from Orlando. The man, who did not want to be named, and some employees drove down to south Dade on Sunday with a mobile kitchen, ready to pitch in with free hot meals.

But first he had to find somebody in charge who could direct him to a field where he could set up, wherever he would be needed most, and preferably not too close to the Army kitchens already in operation.

He never found the right person, or the right place.

"We had eight very capable people down there, and we could have served 2,000 to 4,000 meals a day, but we finally just had to pack it in," he said angrily. "I felt like we were just spinning our wheels. It is just a total state of confusion down there."

Then there are the snafus caused by good old government red tape. For example, the tents became one of the chief sources of tension between the Army and the locals.

The Army promised from Thursday onward that it would soon have tents to set up for people who needed emergency shelter. And these would not be tent cities, it said. They would be taken out to the neighborhoods, where people need them the most.

Not until yesterday did the tents begin to arrive.

What took so long?

"City officials had to make a tent request through FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Administration]," Colonel Ritter said. "Then FEMA, or the state of Florida, would ask the Army."

The request then went to the Army's director of military support, who began ferreting out the needed number of tents from bases and from other relief operations, such as the tent city that had been set up for Haitian refugees at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Add it all up and you've got a four-day delay, the last two of which were filled with thundering downpours that re-soaked everyone still trying to live in homes with torn roofs.

And you can add another two days to that total, because even though hundreds of large tents were set up at three sites yesterday (in tent cities after all), the Army is hoping no one will want to move in until it has hooked up electricity and built shower stalls and a dining area.

The Army had better move fast on those items, Homestead officials say, because tomorrow the town's building inspector will begin touring damaged neighborhoods. If he deems a home too unsafe for habitation, the house will be condemned and the remaining occupants will be evicted.

Colonel Ritter said the tent delay is understandable. "Once again, you've got priorities, and the first priority was to take care of basic needs, like food and water. . . . But I will tell you this, if you've lost everything, nobody can get the support to you as fast as you need it or deserve it," he said.

The Army mobile kitchens were also slow to arrive. After promising 20, the Army only got four up and running until Saturday. As of yesterday 11 were open, although everybody who wanted a hot meal seemed to be able to get one.

But the Army is neither making excuses nor admitting mistakes. "We're going to have some frustrations," Colonel Ritter said, "but we're working smart and we're pleased."

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