Once he left Miami Airport Sept. 18, fire department Battalion Chief Donald R. Howell said he couldn't believe the mass destruction, the despair, the poverty and the desperate messages scrawled on homes in hurricane-ravaged Homestead, Fla.
One message he saw read: "You loot, we shoot!"
Chief Howell and a team of seven county emergency workers and mental health professionals made the trip to help Florida rescue workers deal with their own losses during the costliest disaster in U.S. history -- Hurricane Andrew.
"It's mind-boggling," said Chief Howell, who heads the county fire department's emergency medical services program, about what he saw during the three-day trip to South Florida. "Within 24 hours of the storm, it created 30 years of debris. They just don't know what they'll do with it all."
But the team's work was delayed because many of the group's Florida peers were just getting back to their routines and didn't have time for the assistance.
"It's bad enough to be a rescuer and see the destruction," Chief Howell said. "They get it from both sides. They go to work and deal with it, and if they're lucky they have a house to go home to."
Most of Florida's fire and rescue professionals and volunteers worked 18-hour shifts for almost two weeks after the Aug. 24 hurricane. Many weren't able to go home to their families for days. And when they did, they had little energy when their own families needed help, Chief Howell said.
The hurricane caused at least $30 billion in damage and wiped out at least 63,000 homes, including 100 belonging to police officers and 200 belonging to fire and rescue workers, Chief Howell said. More than 33 people were killed.
"They feel numbness and fatigue," said Dr. Jeffrey T. Mitchell, an Ellicott City psychologist who developed the Critical Incident Stress Debriefings program and traveled to Florida with the group. "They don't really feel anything.
"They can't get away from it. It's all around them. They work in it and then go home to it," Dr. Mitchell said.
He said rescue workers don't suffer "post-traumatic disorder," emotional problems suffered by some combat veterans, but many rescue workers experience severe stress.
One Florida firefighter told Dr. Mitchell that he was "sitting up at nights with a shotgun minding his own home because there was a lot of looting."
When the eye of the storm passed, a group of firefighters "walked out . . . in pitch dark and could hear 360 degrees around the station people crying for help," Chief Howell said. But they were ordered back inside the station because if something had happened to them, no one would have been available to help the needy.
Chief Howell captured on videotape much of the destruction he saw.
"One individual said, 'It looked like Iraq had gotten even with the U.S,' " Chief Howell said. "The sense of normalcy is gone."
Meanwhile, rebuilding occurs. Military police direct traffic, there is a curfew and those left homeless live in tent cities throughout South Florida.
The hurricane has left a myriad of social problems, including hunger, homelessness and crime, Dr. Mitchell said.
People have donated 600,000 tons of clothing. But people instead need canned food, baby supplies and bottled water, Dr. Mitchell said