For South Dade, it has been an excruciating recovery since the shell-shocking impact of Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago.
That it might be slammed again — by Hurricane Irma, a possible Category 4 threatening to arrive at its doorstep — has put the once-rural region on edge.
“We always thought that Andrew was this once-in-a-lifetime event,” Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter said Friday. “But now we’re thinking we’re about to go through this for a second time in our lifetime. To think that our community could be hit again by a hurricane like Andrew would be devastating.”
Porter and other longtime residents of the historic agricultural communities of Homestead, Florida City and the Redland say they remain hopeful that the massive storm will turn more to the west before making landfall on the Florida peninsula. After years of struggle in the wake of Andrew, which inflicted billions in property damage, residents say they’re finally starting to see a turnaround in South Dade.
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“We haven’t given up hope that we won’t get the brunt of this hurricane,” said longtime Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace. “We’re hoping that it moves enough so it won’t be another Andrew. No one wants to go through that again.”
Porter, Wallace and other South Dade community leaders say that some locals have heeded Miami-Dade County’s evacuation order for more than 650,000 people living mostly in the barrier islands and east of U.S. 1 and Biscayne Boulevard. The evacuation order, issued earlier this week, took effect Thursday.
But other locals have stayed put, mainly because Hurricane Irma is predicted to be so vast and powerful that there might be no other part of the state to escape its fury.
“We are really anxious about this hurricane; it’s got everybody freaked,” said Yvonne Knowles, director of Homestead Main Street, Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes economic and cultural activity in the city’s downtown.
“I’m seeing a lot of quiet roads and a lot of people who have left,” she said. “But I’m also seeing a lot of old-timers who went through Hurricane Andrew who are hunkering down.”
Knowles and her husband, Homer, a retired Pan Am pilot, lost a portion of their roof in the Villages of Homestead during Hurricane Andrew. But rather than collect their property insurance claim and leave, like thousands of others in South Dade, the Knowles chose to stay and “rebuild,” she said.
In fact, that spirit became the community’s mantra: We will rebuild.
When Andrew slammed South Dade in the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1992, it wrecked thousands of buildings and upended thousands of lives. Years later, the lingering trauma would give way to to a transformation of the often-struggling agricultural communities into an extension of sprawling Miami-Dade suburbia, with strip malls, Publix and Wal-Mart stores, and fast-food restaurants.
Both Florida City and Homestead have recently completed distinctive city hall complexes to meet the demands of the fast-growing communities. Homestead’s historic center, along century-old Krome Avenue, no longer seems to be a ghost town, featuring the renovation of the Seminole Theatre, an Art Deco movie house, and a new police station next door.
And in Cutler Bay, the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, run by Miami-Dade County, offers a full schedule of top performers.
But nowhere in South Dade is the contrast clearer than on the site of the former Naranja Lakes, Andrew’s ground zero. The storm’s center flattened the modest condo community of 3,000 people, killing three. Years later, it was rebuilt as Mandarin Lakes, a neighborhood of tree-shaded streets and homes with front porches.
Florida City’s mayor, Wallace, said he’s praying the region does not suffer a direct hit.
“We have come so far and have so much to lose.”