Aftermath of Andrew chills S. Florida's spirit


HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Herman Pouw usually sells about thousand Christmas trees at his little stand along Dixie Highway here.

This year, he figures he'll be lucky to sell 250.

"The people just aren't here," he says wearily. "They're gone."

An estimated 45,000 people are indeed gone, dispersed from south Dade County homes destroyed in August by Hurricane Andrew. For many of those who stayed, Christmas will be just one more day to get through.

Nearly four months after it crashed ashore, Andrew is no longer the only story in town -- the Miami Dolphins football team and Somalia are bigger news now. But its stress, hardship and inconvenience remain the cornerstones of life for tens of thousands of people.

Many have been living for months in cramped apartments, doubled up with relatives or in recreational vehicles while contractors rebuild their homes. They are the lucky ones.

Thousands of renters have federal assistance checks but can't find a place to live. Others squat in homes that were never palatial and are now condemned. Meanwhile, 16,000 homeowners are in limbo with bankrupt insurance companies. Some can't find a reputable contractor, and many others watch their homes rot away as they fight bureaucratic battles with insurers and governments.

"If it's not one thing, it's another," says the Rev. Jay Hancock, assistant pastor of the First Baptist Church of Perrine, which lost 40 percent of its congregation after the storm. "If it's not your insurance company that hasn't settled, it's your contractor. The traffic is slow. Buying things is slow. I don't think anyone predicted it would take this long."

In and around the small city of Homestead, which took some of Andrew's hardest shots, entire shopping centers remain dark and destroyed. Doctors and accountants operate out of trailers.

Nearly every other house has a sprawling pile of trash out front. A battered, blue Volkswagen bug crowns one heap. One house with no windows or doors has a sprinkler going full blast in the 85-degree heat, keeping the lawn green.

On many houses, workers are pounding nails into new roofs. But many others are ruined and untouched since the storm. Near the destroyed Homestead Air Force Base, mile after mile of modest homes sit abandoned, a ghost town in the making.

Child abuse and suicide are up. The superintendent of schools in Dade County even sent home a note urging parents not to penalize students for poor grades in the first marking period after the storm.

On a day-to-day level, shopping or banking can be an ordeal. Traffic is horrendous, as homeowners and workers commute between the devastation in the south and their temporary homes an hour or more to the north.

"People are rebuilding their life routines," Miami psychologist David M. Feazell says. "There is no 'back to normal.' It's redefining normal."

There are bright spots, of course. The streets, which had been carpeted with tree limbs and power lines, are cleared. Electrical power is back on and contractors work feverishly in most areas.

But for many people, the misery lingers.

"People are just not the same as they were," says Michael Carroll, director of the Miami chapter of the American Red Cross. "It's a discouraging thing."

Trailer living 'getting old'

Hellen Ventimiglia can't even see the beginning of the end. She, her husband and three of their four children have hunkered down for three months in a 35-foot recreational vehicle parked in back of their house in Perrine, a few miles from Homestead.

Their white, four-bedroom house was destroyed. So were many of the royal palms and cypress that canopied the street.

But the Ventimiglias can't begin rebuilding. They live in a flood plain, and their insurance company won't pay to elevate their house the 3 feet required by federal standards, which have changed since the house was built. To lift the house, it would cost about $75,000, money the family doesn't have. In other words, they can't afford to rebuild. And they would take a beating if they sell.

Thousands of people are in the same predicament and the matter may end up in court. Meanwhile, Mrs. Ventimiglia, 50, spends her days in the trailer, on the phone, plotting strategy and looking for friends in the bureaucracy.

"After living in this trailer for four months and not seeing the first hammer picked up to fix the house, it's getting old," she says.

Claire Glass has been cooped up in a trailer in front of her Homestead house, where a half-dozen citrus trees disappeared with Andrew. She has taken a six-month leave of absence from the phone company to cope with the hurricane. She smokes cigarettes and drinks diet soda while her 2-year-old son putters around the trailer. Her 7-year-old daughter, home sick from school, attaches Christmas stickers to the window.

Ms. Glass usually buys a big Christmas tree, but she doesn't have room in the trailer. Instead, she bought big trees for her two oldest children's classrooms. She plans to string lights on a little palm tree out front.

Trailer living "can get on your nerves," she says. But there is no alternative. Their house won't be ready for another two or three months.

"As long as we keep everything in perspective, we'll be all right," she says.

Watching and waiting

Just south of Homestead, the little town of Florida City went from poor to worse, thanks to Andrew.

Calvin White used to live in his mother's house on the edge of town, out by where the new crop of winter tomatoes now stands thigh-high. Now Mr. White, 47, spends his days in a wheelchair along the wall of an abandoned food store.

His eyes are cloudy, his voice shaky. "I'm paralyzed from the waist down. My old lady cut me up a long time ago," he says.

He sleeps on a mattress flopped in Mom's, a little restaurant closed down by the storm. There is no power or phone. A spigot on the outside of the building provides the only water.

He expects to go back to live with his mother when she gets her house fixed up. He'll be all right until then, he says. He tells a visitor he needs only one thing -- colostomy bags.

A few blocks away, Eva Brookins watches and waits on the porch of her little rented cinder-block house. The roof collapsed and the house was condemned. But with no place to go, Ms. Brookins stayed with her three young grandchildren. Relief workers hung a plastic tarp over the house to keep out most of the water.

The four of them sleep in one bed and cook on a charcoal grill on the front porch. In a final blow, a government disaster-assistance check was lost in the mail.

This week, Eric, 7, came bouncing home from school, delighted with a photograph of himself taken at school. In the picture, he frowns.

"Where should I put it?" he asks his grandmother. He displays the picture amid the mess inside.

"I haven't had a decent night's sleep" since the hurricane, she says. A slightly heavyset woman with tired eyes, Ms. Brookins seems remarkably at ease. "I just try to take it one day at a time, hoping something will come through."

'Kind of like a mission'

For some, Andrew has meant mostly good things.

Salesman Gene Miller speaks wistfully of the past few months, when hundreds of homeowners walked in to Camptown RV Country with big insurance checks, eager to buy or rent a temporary home.

"It was like shooting fish in a rain barrel," Mr. Miller says. In three months, the dealership did a year's worth of business.

Tim Sickel, a self-described yuppie from Fort Lauderdale, drove down to south Dade two days after Andrew hit, revolted by a television picture of a little girl drinking water from a puddle. He sleeps in a tent on a dusty lot in Florida City, part of a group called People Helping People that came to life in Andrew's wake.

Mr. Sickel, 34, says he is considering selling his carpet-cleaning business and going into social work. "I've never helped anybody in my life before," he says. "It's like a drug. I get off on it."

Builder Barry Hayes drove down from Leesburg, about four hours northwest of Miami, shortly after the storm hit. He has gone home twice. His company is rebuilding about 20 houses now -- in Leesburg, they were lucky to do that many in a year.

He's living in a trailer and does little more than drink beer and fish for bass in the Miami canals at night, but he plans to stay another three years. Homeowners have embraced him and his boss as though they were the last honest contractors in Dade County.

"I love my wife and kids to death, and it's hard to be here," says Mr. Hayes, 39, a friendly, "good old boy." "But it's kind of like a mission."

The mission for Arletta Rowe, 49, a truck driver who grew up in Anne Arundel County, Md., is to find someone to pay for her destroyed three-bedroom house. Her insurance company, Motor Club of America, went bankrupt and the Florida insurance guaranty fund is broke.

The insurer owes her $64,000. She's living in her boss' farmhouse in South Carolina, and no one in the bureaucracy will help her.

"Emotionally, I get aggravated. All I want is honest answers," says Ms. Rowe, back in south Dade to lobby the insurance company. "If they don't have the money, just don't jerk me around.

"When this all started, I thought, 'My goodness, I'll be back in my house in three months.' That's how naive I was."

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