Sitting in a transport helicopter on the runway of a Freeport airport ravaged by Hurricane Dorian, Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan thought back to another Category 5 storm from her past and found no comfort.
“What scares me is how long it takes to recover,” said Jordan, 76, a former assistant county manager now serving her final term on the commission. “I think about how devastating it was after Andrew. I thought we’d never recover. ... It took us 10 years.”
Jordan joined three other Miami-Dade commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez for a 45-minute chopper ride to Grand Bahama island Friday to view Dorian’s damage from the air. The flight on a helicopter provided for free by a county vendor coincided with Miami-Dade dispatching a paramedic and rescue squad to Freeport by ferry Friday morning, an operation launched with county tax dollars after Washington declined to enlist the local agency in the international relief effort in the Bahamas.
The delegation of veteran Miami politicians brought memories of the devastation South Dade suffered when Andrew hit Florida in 1992, a storm that captured the world’s attention only to leave Miami to plod through a tedious recovery in the years that followed.
Some saw overlap with the Bahamas and Dorian — both in imploded roofs and crumbled walls that mark the newly homeless in Grand Bahama and Abaco, and in the daunting task that lies ahead, about 130 miles from Andrew’s landfall in the Homestead area 27 years ago.
“People have to be optimistic they can pick up the pieces and rebuild the community,” said Commissioner Dennis Moss, who first took office just months after Andrew and became a chief architect of a recovery blueprint for South Dade dubbed the Moss Plan.
Moss said a catastrophic storm “opens up opportunity because other people come to the area with certain preconceptions. They come to lend a hand. Then they get interested in investing. That will happen here as well.”
Friday’s helicopter ride from Miami, followed by an hour-long flyover above the northern end of Great Abaco, allowed the Miami-Dade officials to be some of the first Miami politicians to set foot in the Bahamas after Dorian. The free trip was possible after the County Commission voted Thursday night to waive ethics rules barring complimentary travel, provided the trips were to the Bahamas and Dorian-related. American Medical Response, an ambulance provider for the county, donated the use of the chopper.
Audrey Edmonson, chairwoman of the County Commission, said the trip was justified by the county’s ongoing supply drive for Dorian victims. “We want to assess the damage, and see what we need to bring in,” she said. “The people of Miami-Dade have been very generous.”
The trip arrived during public friction over the role of politics in Miami’s Dorian relief efforts. This week, Gimenez intervened to stop Miami Mayor Francis Suarez from holding a press conference at county-owned Port Miami to tout the city shipping relief supplies on a cruise ship. Gimenez justified the scratched event Friday, saying the Dorian response “is not about doing photo ops.” Suarez called the move “childish.”
A former city fire chief, Gimenez said he wanted the helicopter look to give the county a better sense of what its rescue crew was facing on the ground. At the Freeport stop, a member of the city rescue squad and his county counterpart boarded the chopper for the flyover above Great Abaco, the island hardest hit by Dorian.
“There was a lot of damage, a lot of devastation, but the density is not the same as it would be here on the mainland,” Gimenez said at a press conference arranged by his office Friday evening after the group returned to Miami. “It’s a manageable tragedy for the Bahamas, at least from what I saw.”
Gimenez was Miami’s emergency manager when Andrew hit. He recalled a helicopter ride in the days after that storm, too, where he saw the same kind of total destruction in suburban neighborhoods as he witnessed from the chopper over Great Abaco.
“In Andrew, you saw a lot of the same damage,” he said. “But it was a much denser population.”
Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the fourth commissioner on the trip, said the storm damage was as severe as he expected in the Abacos. “It reminded me of Andrew. It reminded me of Katrina. It reminded me of the Panhandle,” he said. “Those people have a long road to go.”