andrew_hurricane2_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI – In the eyes of some community leaders and organizers, Hurricane Andrew blew a slumbering South Miami-Dade off the map on Aug. 24, 1992. Then, with the financial generosity of the federal government and the rebuilding vision of local governments and agencies, the area re-emerged with new homes, businesses, churches and infrastructure.

The storm did more than devastate the area. It also exposed a multitude of problems and it should not have taken a Category 5 hurricane to do so, said Ed Hanna Jr., a key player in redeveloping West

Perrine, a predominantly black community chock full of substandard housing, dumping sites, littered lots and illegal businesses.

“But South Dade had been ignored; no one knew about us or cared about what was going on down here,” Hanna said this week. 

For decades, residents had to travel out of their communities for adequate health care, shopping and cultural activities.

“People didn’t want to come down here. The hype was for Overtown and Liberty City, not Richmond Heights, Perrine and Goulds,” said Hanna, president of the West

Perrine Community Development Corporation.

Substandard homes

“The state did not know Goulds existed until after Hurricane Andrew,” state Sen. Larcenia J. Bullard, D-Richmond Heights, said in an interview trhis week. Within months of the storm, she became the new state House freshman representing several unincorporated areas.

In her first term in office, Bullard, the district’s first black female legislator, found herself having to push vigorously to keep federal hurricane dollars in South Miami-Dade as other legislators tried to grab funding for their constituencies.

In Florida City, where Otis Wallace had become the first black mayor in 1984, the storm leveled a substantial number of substandard homes and businesses, which made it easier for the city to wake up from a nightmare and dare to dream.

“Everybody said Florida City was dying and not coming back,” Wallace said in an interview. The city’s recovery plan, “Vision 2000,” was an opportunity for the predominantly black city to ask itself what it wanted to be, Wallace said. The answer was to revive the residential housing  stock and expand the commercial  profile.

Scores of projects

Before Andrew, Florida City had attracted only two national franchises, Wallace said: Burger King and McDonald’s. After the storm, Walmart came in and hired 600 employees. Home Depot, Office Depot, Best Buy and a retail outlet mall soon followed. 

“It was a multi-tentacled process,” said Rick Stauts, Florida City’s director of Community Redevelopment. “It was important for cities to rebuild their residential and commercial bases.”

Hanna credits much of the post-Andrew recovery of South Miami-Dade’s unincorporated area to Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss, the area’s first black county commissioner, who was first elected in 1993 and  handily won another term this Tuesday.

The “Moss Plan,” Hanna said, “pushed us forward and allowed the people in the community to have a say in what they wanted.”

Through public-private partnerships, the plan spurred scores of projects, including a permanent location for the Community Health of South Florida Inc. (CHI), which offers health services throughout South Miami-Dade. Now, Hanna noted, there is a Busway connecting residents to Metrorail, a health center on Homestead Avenue in  West Perrine, palm trees along Lincoln Boulevard, a shopping center promenade in Richmond Heights and the South Dade Cultural Arts Center has been completed.

Churches damaged

The Rev. Walter Richardson, chairman of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board, touts “We Will Rebuild” with helping churches rebuild. The nonprofit group created by community leaders to help after the storm found that Andrew damaged more than 250 houses of worship.

Some churches, such as Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in West Perrine, where Richardson was then pastor, were insured. “But most churches were underprepared,” said Richardson, who, as a member of We Will Rebuild, assisted churches in their comeback. The group distributed $1 million in grants to rebuild 30 houses of worship.

Although the debris has long since disappeared and new homes and businesses have sprouted, the storm’s “blessings” did not come without cost: a $25 billion devastation that claimed 26 lives.  And while thousands were able to rebuild their homes, businesses and lives, thousands of others moved away.  Florida City’s population has since doubled to about 12,000, but it lost 45 percent of its tax base because of the storm, Wallace said.

The big stuff is now done, said Bullard, and it took about five years to accomplish, despite predictions by some experts that it would take 20 years, she said.

Vacant lots

Still, it was only this year, said Stauts in Florida City, that his city finally removed the last of bad housing structures and there are still vacant lots west of U.S. 1 in Homestead, he said.

As area leaders get set to use the 20th anniversary of the storm as an occasion to review the positive changes that occurred, the post-hurricane period has not brought much change for some residents, they say.

 “There still is a lack of nice housing for low-income folks,” Stauts said.  “There were people living on the edge before the hurricane and they are still there. It’s not a huge number but they exist.  Groups of low-income families still are scraping to get by.”

The NAACP invested a great deal of time and resources after the hurricane, said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the civil rights organization. The NAACP negotiated with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to free Nweze from her duties as district director of Title 1 programs to work full time helping South Miami-Dade families find the resources they needed to cope, a task she took on for more than a year.

Fractured recovery

“I sometimes wonder if the people we were trying to help got their jobs back,” Nweze said. “Did they somehow really recover and rebuild their lives?”

“There was such a clamor to get people fed, housed and resettled, perhaps emotional and psychological needs were not met,”  said Althea King, a South Miami-Dade resident who was principal of Hammocks Middle School in West Kendall in 1992. “Our children suffered such trauma in areas such as Florida City, Goulds and Perrine but I’m not sure it all came from Andrew.”

The recovery should have been more holistic, said Richardson. “We missed some opportunities. Kids are now showing the evidence of our fractured recovery.  Even though the place looks better physically, we see evidence of drug addiction and premature families.  I think there are a lot of social issues that have not been addressed; we were mainly concerned with safety. Hopefully, we have more time.”

Twenty years after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Miami-Dade cities and neighborhoods, four community leaders recall the challenges, stresses, heartbreaks and hope they found in the aftermath of the killer storm

Larcenia J. Bullard of Richmond Heights, outgoing state Senator, District 39 

Bullard was elected to the state House soon after Hurricane Andrew after working with then state Senators Carrie Meek and Daryl Jones to get temporary polling stations set up in the area to replace the polling sites that had been destroyed or closed during the storm.  Then she faced a personal issue:
 “When it was time for me to go to Tallahassee, I realized that I didn’t have any appropriate clothes. Clothing stores were not open. There was this wonderful lady who sent someone to tell me that I could come to her house and pick out whatever I needed. We were about the same size.  I had been doing so much volunteer work in the community and it was a great surprise that now someone was helping me. “

Mayor Otis Wallace, mayor of Florida City    
The hurricane spared few buildings in Florida City, Miami-Dade County’s southern-most municipality. Wallace and a small group of city emergency staff workers hunkered down at City Hall.

“During the eye of the storm, a few people whose homes were not livable walked over to City Hall seeking shelter and assistance. But I really knew we were in trouble when I looked across the street and saw that Grandma Newton’s Bed and Breakfast was gone.  It just was not there.”  The sign on the 1914-built clapboard house was found later in Miami Beach.

Althea King retired from Miami-Dade Public Schools as principal of South Ridge High School. She lives in the Green Hills community in South Miami-Dade.

King, principal of Hammocks Middle School in West Kendall, went to check on the school building on the afternoon of the storm.

    “It had not sustained much damage but what I found inside was unbelievable.  The school had not been designated as a hurricane shelter but when I got there my office walls were lined with elderly patients in wheelchairs brought from a nursing home in Homestead. There were no attendants or nurses.  I had the only phone line that was working. I called the central office of the Red Cross and nurses and aides were sent in.”

Bobbie Messer, Homestead resident, is a retired Miami-Dade Police officer who was assigned to the Cutler Ridge District at the time of the hurricane.

    “As the storm started to subside, folks were wondering around,” he recalls. “They were dazed. We walked about 50 to 60 people over to Cutler Ridge Mall so they could get inside, to the chagrin of the security people, who didn’t want to open the doors.  But I was able to secure the people at the mall. The next day I went to check on my home but I could not find it. All of the landmarks were gone; all of the trees were gone; the street signs were gone. When I found it, the roof was gone, all of the windows were gone, and all of the furniture was gone. I managed to find a pair of jeans and a pair of socks.”