HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When Hurricane Andrew rolled across South Florida nearly two weeks ago, it left a tiny Third World country in its wake, a place that used to be south Dade County.
The new nation lives under curfew and martial law, on a landscape of ruin that stretches on and on, 160 square miles in all.
It is a warren of the humbled and homeless, who line up for handouts by the thousands. They have no schools, no churches. Ice is a luxury, telephones are a novelty and spray-painted graffiti are a leading form of communication. Electricity is a remote dream that won't be realized for months.
The president of the United States has visited twice, each time making generous promises. But for all the talk of rebuilding, the most optimistic know it will be a painful crawl that could take years. And even then, when this place again becomes south Dade County, it will be changed forever.
New nation of south Dade
In the new nation of south Dade, the day begins like this: Six twin-engine DC-3s, the same vintage as the one in the farewell scene in "Casablanca," take off in the first light of the sun.
They wheel in formation, as white as sea gulls against the sky, then lower to within a hundred feet of the ground, wingtip to wingtip above the destruction of the storm. The pilots open the valves of sprayers on each wing, and a dozen white contrails of insecticide stream from the roaring formation.
The spray floats to the ground in a choking cloud, blanketing destroyed homes, tent cities, and lines of hungry people at food depots and mobile kitchens. Packs of lean, haggard dogs yowl and run for cover.
Dazed, blinking children cower, clinging to the legs of their parents. A grimy-faced woman gathering sticks for a fire looks up, squinting into the drifting haze. And before long every place on the ground smells like somebody just emptied a half-strength can of Raid.
But for everyone who has been up half the night swatting mosquitoes in tents and torn homes, this dawn patrol is a welcome sight. But it has yet to win the war. Each thunder shower builds a hatchery for the next generation of mosquitoes, and the inexhaustible army of bugs keeps coming. Now there is talking of calling in the U.S. Air Force for reinforcements.
'It's like a nuke hit'
For most people who have come here since the storm, the biggest shock is not so much the severity of the devastation as its sweep and breadth.
Army Staff Sgt. David Ware, who saw war zones and other disasters in three tours of duty in Germany, had seen plenty of the televised footage of Andrew by the time he flew down with a relief mission from Fort Drum, N.Y. He figured he was prepared.
"It was much worse than I imagined," he said. "It's like a nuke hit."
The route passes about 16 large neighborhoods sprawling out from both sides of the highway. In each, rooftop after rooftop is stripped of tiles, then staved in at one spot or another, or else collapsed altogether. Windows are blown out. Plastic patches flap in the breeze. Defoliated, uprooted trees lean against walls like giant tumbleweeds.
But even assuming that each of these 16 neighborhoods has 200 homes, and that all of those homes are irreparably damaged, the views along this 15-mile drive account for only about 5 percent of the estimated 63,000 homes left uninhabitable by the storm.
If that's not enough, one can view the place from the air at night. Heading south from Fort Lauderdale, the heavy development of South Florida stretches down the Atlantic coast in a swath of a thousand lights, glittering like sequins.
Then a little south of downtown Miami it all stops, dropping into a void spattered with a few glowing dots. It's almost as if it was again 1912, just before the crews of Henry Flagler hacked their way south to lay down the first line of railway to the Keys.
But in the same way that rapid development changed the face of south Dade County in the two decades before the storm, the rebuilding will again bring radical change, and not all of it will be good for many residents who were hit the hardest.
First, there are the mobile home parks that were literally wiped out by Andrew. Homestead officials are talking of banning mobile homes. Soon bulldozers will begin clearing the wrecked ones to make way for government trailer homes that will serve as temporary housing.
"That will mean a lot less housing for low-income people," said Homestead resident Doug Brown, standing in his wrecked neighborhood. "And there are a lot of poor people around here in some of these towns like Florida City.
"It will be very different around here. Maybe they'll even do a better job this time, maybe the homes will be better, but it won't be the same."
Although the insurance industry estimates that it will pay $7.3 billion in benefits in Dade County, the coverage held by many residents hasn't kept pace with rising property values. As if that weren't enough of a handicap, home prices will almost certainly go up, construction industry executives say.
They cite several reasons.
First, there's simply the increased demand.
Then there's the cost that will result from greater scrutiny of building methods. This is considered inevitable after some homes crumpled so easily in the wind.
"In some parts of Dade County in the past few years, they were putting up homes so fast that a lot of them have pretty shoddy workmanship," said Wayne Shoemaker, Dade County general manager for Prudential Florida Realty. "When you see what happened to some of these homes, you have to wonder who inspected the damn building."
Popular shortcuts include the use of staples instead of nails to attach roofing, or, when nails were used, using shorter ones and placing them farther apart.
When Gene Lessman scavenged through the rubble around his badly damaged home in Leisure City, he found roof tiles all over the neighborhood on which workers had never removed the paper backing from adhesive strips. "What were these people doing?" he asked.
How long will the rebuilding take? For some neighborhoods, perhaps less than a year. But in other places it could last as long as five years.
"Just the logistics are awesome," said Bud Miller, president of Arvida Co., a homebuilder based in Boca Raton.
"If Dade County is used to 5,000 to 6,000 building permits per year, how does it gear up to handle 60,000? How do the banks gear up to handle the financing?" Mr. Miller said.
"There needs to be coordination and cooperation on an enormous level," he said. "We have a consultant, a structural engineer who was also involved in the aftermath of [Hurricane] Hugo, and I asked him about the comparison, and he said, 'One of the things you need to understand is that there is no comparison.' I don't know of any city or area in the United States that's ever faced this level of damage. We're moving into uncharted waters."
Inevitably, thousands of people temporarily scattered by the storm will never come back. After Hugo, about 5 percent of the population of Charleston, S.C., left for good. A similar exodus from south Dade County would involve about 36,000 people.
For some, back to normal
In much of the rest of Dade County, life is almost back to normal.
The south end of Miami Beach, now a trendy, cosmopolitan blend of restored Art Deco hotels and a funky business district with a distinctly Cuban flavor, was again swarming with sunbathers last week at the edge of the turquoise sea. Rush-hour traffic on the major thoroughfares is just as snarled and horrific as ever.
Electricity has returned to most neighborhoods, and fast-food restaurants and video stores are up and running again.
Residents are no longer instructed to boil their drinking water, and interest is shifting more to matters such as the Miami Dolphins' season opener.
There is also a mini-boom for the county hotels, as thousands of power company employees, tree cutters, insurance adjusters and law enforcement officers converge to help in the south Dade cleanup and recovery.
Devastation a half-hour away
But in about a half-hour of driving, one can stand in the front yard of Rafael Gibson in Florida City. You can walk with him across the floor of his house, staring up at the blue sky and roiling thunderheads as you go from room to room.
He'll tell you that on the night of Andrew he sent his wife and two children to a shelter and sat down to wait out the storm.
Then, here, in the living room, the windows began to blow out in explosions of shattered glass. The ceiling swelled downward like an over inflated balloon, then burst in a howling explosion of water, wallboard and insulation.
Other rooms went the same way, one by one, until he ended the night huddled in a closet.
Or you can watch a woman running across a street, a baby in her arms, toward an Army helicopter that is lowering itself to the ground. Her hair blowing, she climbs aboard, a look of worry on her face. A medic leans over her shoulder for a look at the child. For two days, the baby has had a temperature of 104 degrees. The helicopter lifts off, headed for a hospital in the other world of north Dade.
You can find people like Ken Trumble, shirtless and bearded and slightly dehydrated from another 90-degree-plus afternoon, claiming small sentimental victories in the remains of a flattened trailer park.
Mr. Trumble, 68, holds a small white plaster dog in his right hand. It is missing a few pieces. "It lost this leg in the hurricane of 1935," he says. "And the tail broke off in this hurricane."
If you're patient enough to wait a day or two at the small field hospital set up in the Homestead Senior Center, you can see the latest arrivals to this new land. Six babies have been born here so far.
Wait until nightfall and you'll find Roger Bortell amid the mosquitoes in the one last sheltered room in his house in Leisure City. Need a phone? Ask Mr. Bortell. His still works for some reason that he can't fathom, and by now the whole neighborhood knows it.
But don't ask to use it after dark. He goes to bed then, he explains, serenaded to sleep in the neighborhood's eerie darkness by the occasional sound of gunfire and the faint lawn-mower growls of portable generators, way off in the distance.
"Then I usually wake up around midnight and sit around thinking," he says. "There isn't much to do at night."