HOMESTEAD, Fla. — As a massive cleanup and relief effort continued Saturday in hurricane-battered southern Florida, signs emerged for the first time that the military's tent cities might finally be filling up.
By Saturday night, more than 1,000 people had registered to stay at the two main tent cities being run by the Marine Corps in this community and in nearby Florida City. That was more than double the tent population of two days ago, although still well short of the facilities' 3,000-person capacity.
In hot, humid conditions Saturday, about 12,000 volunteers--including 9,000 Mormon church members from six states who brought chain saws, plywood and tar paper--swarmed into the area for the three-day Labor Day weekend, creating traffic jams on local turnpikes and a logistics nightmare for military commanders who are coordinating the recovery effort.
"We've got our hands full today," said Army Maj. Gen. Steven Arnold, commander of the relief operation in Homestead, during his morning helicopter tour of the devastated area.
The flyover, 13 days after Hurricane Andrew blasted through this state's southern tip, revealed a landscape that is at once barren and alive. Acres and acres of avocado and mango trees were downed, toppled like fallen matchsticks. Whole trailer parks, flattened by the hurricane's 150-m.p.h. winds, look as if they were sat upon by some kind of giant monster.
Yet the view from above also clearly shows the rebuilding effort. Plywood and plastic coverings are going up on roofs. So many people are at work that only 200 showed up Saturday morning for an outdoor prayer service conducted by the Rev. Billy Graham--despite the religious leader's prediction that more than 5,000 people would attend.
In some spots, there are huge piles of debris--testimony to the work of hundreds of soldiers who have spent days in the hot sun clearing neighborhoods, block by block. As the military increases its presence, more and more tents are springing up and more and more camouflage-colored Humvees are rumbling down the roads.
"It's like mushrooms," Arnold said, looking down at a supply distribution point that his soldiers were setting up. "We're going everywhere."
Among other developments Saturday:
--President Bush added Louisiana to his growing list of recipients of federal aid, declaring that the government would pay the full costs of repairs for public facilities damaged by the hurricane. The pledge extends to Louisiana the same commitment Bush made to Florida earlier in the week. Normally, the federal government repays 75% of the cost for reconstruction after natural disasters.
--Officials in Florida complained that real and phony public officials have taken advantage of the hurricane's aftermath to steal from victims. In Florida City, five outreach workers hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were arrested after allegedly taking items from people they were supposed to be helping.
--The U.S. attorney's office in Miami joined the FBI and other agencies in recruiting experts to look for "systematic violations" of building codes.
Local officials said they expect the tent city population to continue to blossom as word spreads about the facilities and as more people become convinced of their safety.
"Now that people have recognized that it's safe, that their basic human needs are being taken care of in terms of food and shelter, now that word is spreading, people are less afraid of leaving their homes," said Homestead city spokeswoman Barbara Gothard.
The growing military presence here is designed in part to assure storm victims that their homes will be safe without them.
Still, many continued to insist Saturday that they are reluctant to abandon what little they have in order to move into the Spartan tent sites, called "life support centers" by the military. People say they prefer makeshift roofs, walls that are crumbling, mildewed rugs, no electricity and tainted water to the idea of sleeping on a hard cot in a tent with strangers.
Joe Sines was one homeowner who found he had little choice.
"We were trying to keep our house afloat in Florida City, but it just got totally worse," Sines, a roofing contractor, said Friday night as he stood in line at the tent city at Homestead's Harris Field, waiting for Marines to hand him the standard-issue sheet, blanket and towel. "The house started falling apart. Emergency units came by and told us we had to evacuate."
Word of the tent cities apparently is slowly reaching southewrn Florida's most impoverished and disenfranchised residents, including hundreds of non-English speaking migrant workers left homeless when the hurricane ripped through their camps.
"Our people are suffering from translation," said Rolande Dorancy, executive director of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami. "The media did not provide information in Creole. But the word is going out now."