HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Two months after Hurricane Andrew twisted this city and much of the surrounding area into the ruins of what is called the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States, the patient is on the mend.
Electrical power has been almost completely restored, about 30% of businesses are open and, with the tents and field kitchens gone, the park across from City Hall could soon see a baseball game again.
City Manager Alex Muxo said: "The demand for housing is so great that property values have even gone up by 5% to 7%."
Still, Muxo is the first to admit that in Homestead, as in much of southern Dade County, the nightmare lingers. In bombed-out neighborhoods, in former trailer parks now bulldozed clear of rubble and in schools still sharing space with Red Cross clinics and food distribution centers, life is far from what it was before Aug. 24 and two hours of 175-m.p.h. winds.
A 10 p.m. curfew remains in effect and, without street lights, vast areas that once bustled with life have taken on an eerie, haunted look that will last well beyond Halloween.
In Homestead, 85% of the homes were either destroyed or severely damaged, and two out of every three residents are gone, many for good. The current population is estimated to be 9,000, down from 27,000.
"Obviously, it's never going to look like it did before," Muxo said. "Remember, we had no water, no electricity and no food--the essentials. It was frustrating, disheartening, but it was reality: We became a Third World country overnight.
"Now at least people aren't hungry; there's plenty of help out there."
Nonetheless, there is often an air of uncertainty that seems to drift through the minds of hurricane survivors like so much smoke from one of the many open debris incineration pits. Even longtime civic boosters feel it.
"There is some lack of confidence, and it ranges into despair," said Ray Goode, president of We Will Rebuild, a coalition of community powerbrokers that has raised $20 million to spur reconstruction and help strained social service agencies. "We have a job creating optimism."
The magnitude of the hurricane's destruction almost defies measurement. Last week, insurance companies bumped their estimate of damage claims to a world record $10.2 billion, up 40% from earlier figures. Throughout the county, 175,000 people were left homeless. Lost jobs totaled 90,000.
According to county planners, the area faces a painstaking, two-tiered recovery, with south Dade an economic basket case. Overall, employment is expected to rebound in three years. But the number of jobs won't climb to pre-storm levels until well into the 21st Century.
Major employers such as Burger King and American Bankers Insurance Group suffered heavy storm damage to their corporate headquarters, and operations have been temporarily moved elsewhere.
With its 160 stores, the Cutler Ridge Mall was the commercial center of south Dade County. It remains closed, and while the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. has promised to reopen, shopping before this Christmas seems unlikely.
Other losses cannot be quantified. "We're seeing a lot of delayed stress reactions now," said psychologist Darrell Downs, clinical director of south Dade's Community Mental Health Center, which deals with up to 45 crisis cases a day. "People are finally letting go of the survival mode they were in and falling into depression. To many, it just seems like it will never end."
All but a handful of the more than 24,000 U.S. troops have pulled out of the area, most traffic signals are operating and, with grocery stores open, people are no longer standing forlornly in long, shadeless queues for boxes of canned goods. The temperature has dropped, and even the mosquitoes have abated.
But it is not necessary to travel far from the now-cleared streets of downtown Homestead to find storm survivors living in conditions that resemble horrific scenes from post-nuclear holocaust movies.
For example, scattered through the community called Naranja Lakes--a once-pleasant subdivision that used to be home to 4,000 people--perhaps 100 survivors are holed up in the remains of a trash-strewn ghost town. Three of the 17 deaths attributed directly to the storm happened here.
"This is like being on a camping trip with a tent that leaks," said Ira Shear, 79, who with his wife, Shirley, is the sole occupant of Court 68, a block of 10 units. The the wind whistles through the exposed rafters, plaster drips from the ceiling with the rain and eight cats step lightly over the broken glass as they come and go through the shattered front window.
"We stay because there is no place to rent within 20 miles, and we couldn't afford it anyway," he said.
Half a mile away, Troy Curry, 19, his girlfriend, Missy Tkaczuk, 15, and six other young people live in a state of "Blade Runner" future shock amid the debris of Court 56. There is no electricity, and the walls are crumbling.