This descriptive look into the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew was initially printed on the front page of the Miami Herald on Sept. 6, 1992. Reporter Michael Browning, who worked at the Miami Herald from 1978 to 1998, died in 2006.
There is simply too much sky.
A fortnight after the attack of Hurricane Andrew, the southern arc of Florida lies luminous and shadowless in an extraordinary wash of daylight, despoiled, naked, hammered by the sun and open to every random rain.
The locust-winds of this tremendous storm, now sped and gone, have fretted every green leaf, stripped tree bark and twig down to the last tendril. Through these shadeless boughs a blank heaven shines, filled with wandering clouds -- clouds that float unconcerned, white, serene and neutral over a scene of devastation unwitnessed in this peninsula for over half a century.
"I tell you Haiti is better than America, after this hurricane," said Billy Louis, 20, a refugee from the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, as he sat on a ruined porch in Florida City where he, 11 other adults and four children are dazedly waiting for relief.
Throughout the second week since the storm, Army helicopters surveyed the damage by day. By night policemen and soldiers stood in the hellish red radiance of crossroad flares, directing traffic like flap-armed demons. The Milky Way, usually invisible in South Florida because of the ground glare of electric lights, sparkled in the sky with an unaccustomed beauty, arching, silver and silent.
As ants whose hill has been stamped into ruin by a huge boot from the sky, so the human victims of the 160-mph storm were swarming around the wreckage of their colonies -- Homestead, Goulds, Naranja, Florida City -- angry, dazed, running in circles, forming in ragged lines.
"I was driven out of my trailer at the storm's worst," said Carmelina Perez, of the Dixie Trailer Park north of Homestead. "I hugged the propane tank at the front. My bougainvillea bush ran its thorns into my arms, they are all scarred now, you see?" She shows angry red scars, newly scabbed over, on her arms.
"I was out in the rain that night. It was like bullets. I thought the rain would pierce my skin. I thought I would pour out my blood in the rain."
Visitors from afar prowled the zig-zag, stupendous desolation with video cameras, goggle-eyed, gulping up the tell- your-grandchildren fantastic views. Two squad cars of policemen from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., came to the Everglades migrant worker trailer camp to snap photos like tourists.
"Hugo was a puff of wind compared to this," said officer R.L. Cowan, standing on the hood of his police car to get a better glimpse. He means Hurricane Hugo, which devastated South Carolina's coast in 1989.
Around Cowan spread a ground-zero panorama of scythed metal and flown timbers, trailers flipped and piled on top of others as if they were trying to copulate before they were surprised by the storm. The trailer camp looked as if each vehicle had been carefully, invisibly dynamited. Trailers, you discover from this inside-out wreckage, are nothing but a stout steel bed carrying a frail box of make-believe.
A DIVISIVE INTERLOPER
The hurricane has divided people into two groups: the hopeful and the hopeless. Even now, even a few days after the storm, clearly visible character marks are emerging from the wrecked rows of houses.
Some property-owners are busy, driven by a determination to set everything right as soon as possible. They shuttle back and forth amid the devastation, organizing everything into piles, hammering, sawing fallen trees into neat, manageable cylinders, sweeping, mopping, clearing, climbing ladders.
Others are simply overwhelmed at the magnitude of the calamity. They sit dazed and stuporous in the blanketing heat, in a perfect paralysis of amazement that renews itself fountain- like, from moment to moment. It is all too much for them.
Indeed, southernmost Florida is one of the most astounding landscapes on earth right now, a stark mix of lunar desolation and solar intensity. It widens your eyeball, just to look at it, to behold the shorn Norfolk Island pines, notched and nude, with their last, few, "went-that-a-way" branches sticking out like signposts, pointing west where the storm departed.
It is hard to fault these unstrung, listless people; the destruction is so immense, the blizzard of rubbish so wide-swept and deep-drifted. How many maids and how many mops, the Walrus once asked the Carpenter, would it take to scour the seashore clean of all its sands?
They do not know. Nobody knows. Like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, they'll think about that tomorrow.
"My relatives are taking me to Arkansas and I don't know if I'll ever come back from Arkansas," Camille Sperandio said, outside the ruins of her home of 22 years in Florida City. "What do I come back to, here?"
A LIFE OFF-BALANCE