HOMESTEAD, FLA. — HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- At night from time to time, the gunshots still crackle in the deep darkness of the ruined neighborhoods, spraying lead across the fallen trees and piles of garbage in these places where there used to be electricity, running water and schools.
But when police cruise by to investigate, their headlights invariably illuminate nothing more sinister than a spray-painted message on the wall of some gutted home. ("You loot, we shoot. You try, you die," to name one.)
Police aren't finding any bodies at such scenes, and of all the minor miracles of survival in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, one of the biggest may be that no one has been shot to death in communities that have become virtual armed camps.
"I'm surprised it hasn't happened," says Homestead Police Sgt. Jim Orbach. "It's dangerous out there, and I don't expect to get through this without somebody getting shot to death. Somebody's eventually going to attempt to crawl into the wrong house, and the owner's going to be waiting with a gun."
If ever there were a place primed to live by the gun at the first hint of anarchy, it would seem to be Dade County. Following an explosion of violence in the early 1980s, it has acquired a nasty reputation for high murder rates, short fuses and quick triggers.
The atmosphere of easy gunplay may best be summed up by a satirical poster that pokes fun at a tourism slogan for Miami, the county's biggest city.
"Miami, See It Like a Native," the slogan says, but instead of depicting a beach scene with skimpy bikinis and waving palms, the poster's view looks straight down the barrel of a .38 Special.
This is the county where the honking of a horn in traffic has been the prelude to a shootout, where gun sales have soared every time Miami's slums have erupted into riots. Now that Andrew has come and gone with the force of a thousand riots, gun sales are again zooming for some dealers.
"We've had a big increase since the hurricane, probably about 40 percent," says John Gonzalez, manager of one of the three locations of the Tamiami Gun Shop, one of Dade County's largest gun dealers.
"I would say that 90 percent of the people who are purchasing the firearms are from the areas with the most damage, and they're buying everything from the simplest handgun to semiautomatic rifles or shotguns. People are trying to protect what little they have left."
Ken Trumble, 68, explained the prevailing mood among many homeowners as he propped a lawn chair in the shade amid the rubble of his mobile home. Mr. Trumble, who lived for the first five nights after the hurricane in a 10-by-16-foot aluminum tool shed, dented and torn but still standing, said he sat up each night with a .357-caliber Magnum at his side.
"If I heard anyone I was going to shoot it up in the air for a warning, and if that didn't stop him I'd shoot the bastard," he said.
"Then I'd probably end up in court with some shyster lawyer explaining why, but I'm going to protect my property."
But the most succinct expressions of intent to shoot are found among the spray-painted graffiti that have become a hallmark of this storm.
At the home of Luis Rosado, the message in big bold letters on his home's front wall says, "We are armed. Looters will die!"
Not to be outdone, his next-door neighbor has painted: "Welcome to hell. Looters will be killed." Only Mr. Rosado has gone to the trouble of stringing two strands of barbed wire around the perimeter of his lawn.
Mr. Rosado has sent his wife and three children to stay with relatives in New Jersey while he toughs it out in a backyard tent until an insurance adjuster arrives. He spends his nights tending a bonfire until 2 a.m. in the cul de sac out front, then leaves the blaze to go out on its own when he goes to bed.
So far, he says, no looters.
Though no one has been killed by gunfire in these neighborhoods, at least two looters have been shot by property owners. Neither was seriously injured. No arrests were made in the shootings. Police concluded there was no way to find out who had done them.
Arrests for looting have slacked off to almost zero during the past week, but Sergeant Orbach said his department still receives up to 15 reports of looting every night.
Not that looters have been the only targets of gunshots. Three Marines were fired on but not hit -- no one knows why -- while patrolling one night in Florida City, just south of Homestead.
Nor have homeowners been the only people to arm themselves. Two men who decided to be good Samaritans by driving a truckload of food and water out to some of southern Dade County's poorest communities were nearly overwhelmed by the mobbing response.
They were so overwhelmed, in fact, that they retreated without finishing, and didn't return until they had donned camouflage and loaded up their guns.
Their second trip went much smoother.