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. The hurricane hit South Miami-Dade 24 years ago.
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
Some wear guns. Some pray the rosary. Some play cards or sleep or shift their belongings about to little purpose, from 'Debris Pile A' to 'Debris Pile B.' There are calico drifts of soaking clothing everywhere, with broken mirrors, upended sofas and upside-down sinks. Water oozes and trickles and puddles up through the steamy, planar landscape. Cars putter slowly along the highways, their windshields crushed to webs of rock candy.
There are no more roofs or right angles. Life is slantendicular now. Everything leans or lies out of true. Andrew blew away the surveyor's plumb-bob, smeared the subdivision plat, rezoned neighborhoods as waste dumps, plunged whole shopping centers into signless anonymity, erased street names and addresses, made the concepts of trespass and private property very fuzzy, especially after dark.
"I spend all night out here under this tent," said "Stormin' Norman" Vecsey, 58, ex-Marine, ex-plumber, wearing tattoos on his arms and a Smith and Wesson .357 magnum revolver on his hip. "I'm going to get one of them."
He means looters. "YOU LOOT WE SHOOT," the sign on his lawn says. Looters cleaned out Vecsey's big collection of beer mugs from all over the world, musical steins from Germany, mugs from every state of the Union. He is exhilarated, keyed up, battle- ready. The storm has added zest to his life. He calls the five bullets in his revolver "my five little brothers." He is supposed to undergo heart surgery in three weeks, but you would never guess that from his demeanor.
"I have lived in this neighborhood for 22 years. Now I don't know where I am. That night I just prayed the rosary all night long," said Camille Sperandio. "It was awful, awful, awful."
"I was in World War II, in France, Belgium and Germany," said Holmes A. Painter, 66, known as "Old Hap" to his friends. He was sitting on a curb outside a blown-apart motel in Florida City, sweating so much he seemed to be melting in the sun. He waves to the passing soldiers and remembers when he was one of them, marching across a ruined Europe.
"I have seen some bad times. I have seen some destruction. But this . . . " Painter shakes his head. "This involves everything."
Andrew was an unjust bully of a hurricane, very class- conscious. He tiptoed past the wealthy glass towers of Miami, almost deferentially. Apart from a few terrible exceptions, he was content merely to insult and jostle the bourgeoisie of Kendall, elbowing them in the ribs, shoving them off the sidewalk.
But the unoffending poor of Homestead and Florida City he trampled down utterly, smashing their homes and trailers to matchwood with a ruthless, overmastering scorn. Those who possessed little, those who were old and near the end of their lives, those people saw their "little all" snatched apart and blown away: savings, papers, albums -- all these were swallowed by the sky.
This hurricane disinherited the meek, who were supposed to inherit the earth. It deprived the already deprived.
"It makes me angry when I hear how 'Miami is safe! Miami is safe! How lucky we are!' " said Victor Perez of Homestead. He was halfway up a ladder to his mother's wrecked roof.
"All we are hearing is Miami, Miami, Miami. Or like: 'Thank God! Kendall is OK!' Well, Kendall is not the whole world. They should come down here and look. Down here we got big problems."
From overpasses on the Florida Turnpike south, the tremendous sweep of the storm's visitation becomes hazily apparent. The land yawns out to a colorless horizon that seems to be prickled with thousands of tiny, dark thorns. These sharp nubbins are really wind-lopped trees and telephone poles, pushing up spikily from the flatlands of South Florida in bare, broken myriads.
Mile after mile of damaged dwellings stream by at the highway border. First there are the roofs that lost their tiles. Then there are the roofs that lost their tarpaper, planed down to the bare boards by a terrific skyborne adz. Then come the roofs that lost their plyboards and have only rafters beneath. Then come the hypothetical roofs, the might-have-been roofs, the roofs that are no more.
"I got into a fight with an Oakland Park cop over my gun. He saw me carrying it out on the sidewalk and he said it was 'reckless display of a weapon' and I was supposed to carry it only in my house," "Stormin' Norman" Vecsey said.
"I told him: 'This lawn is my house. My old house is no longer inhabitable.' "
THE WIDENING GAP
The bright, pastel, blocky look of South Florida has become crushed and blurred. It is like beholding a strange sea- bottom, whose waters have receded to reveal weird wrecks and outcrops of concrete coral, lusterless and covered with old weeds. Steel, wire and splintered wood prickle from broken buildings in fantastic shapes: spikes, ruffles, fanfolds of tin and aluminum.
This tin is everywhere, in metallic tumbleweeds. Wads and crumples of tin roofing are blown and wrapped around everything: Trees, power poles, fences and uprights are festooned with wind- hammered tin, furled so tight they seem like turkey drumsticks wrapped in foil, cooking in the sun.
Yet a few miles to the north, everything is normal, or nearly so. The lights burn at night, the air conditioners whirr, distilling comfort. Traffic bustles and jams along I-95. The hotels of South Florida are full of people who have left their damaged homes to enjoy the fruits of freon and electrical current, hot showers and cool pillows at $100 a night or more. A man in the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Hotel talks about going to a jai-alai game in Dania last night with his date, what a thrill jai-alai is!
In his book on World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussel notes the "ridiculous proximity" of the trenches and downtown London and the queer impact it had on the minds of British soldiers at the front in the middle of the Great War.
"A distance of only 70 miles separated 'this stinking world of sticky, trickling earth' from the rich plush of London theater seats and the perfume, alcohol and cigar smoke of the Cafe Royale," Fussel writes. It was possible to breakfast in the trenches and dine in London.
The distance in Dade County is even shorter. From the bright lights of downtown Miami and the blue-paned office towers of Brickell Avenue, it is not 40 miles to the soggy, tatterdemalion landscape of South Dade, with its tumbled toilets, capsized trailers, smashed warehouses and oozing hummocks of cloth, rubber and splintered wood; its restless, hot, dispossessed, mosquito-pricked, poor people.
Carmelina Perez, her dozen cats, her half-dozen dogs, are all living in a truck and a tent at the former Dixie Trailer Park north of Homestead. All in all, she would rather be in Las Vegas, which is where she spent 28 years before retiring here.
A 15-year-old dog, blind and befuddled, stirs underneath a nearby tarpaulin that is Perez's new bedroom. Kittens yowl on the dashboard of her old truck, whose windows are up despite the stifling heat. "I don't want them to get away," she explains.
"At the worst of the storm, they all went crazy," Perez says. "They were crying and whimpering and out of their minds, so scared. It was like they didn't even recognize me anymore."
Perez is more worried about her animals than the loss of her trailer, which is a sloping pile of driftwood and metal. She sleeps with her pets, in a chair underneath the tarpaulin, in the bug-skittering dark of South Dade. Her back hurts. "I got to go to the doctor when I get a chance," she says. "These mosquitoes are eating my dogs," she frets.
SAVING THE ANIMALS
Yet while she is talking, on a bright Wednesday morning the tenth day after the storm, there occurs one of those only- in-South-Florida rescues. Leslie Angelucci and Karen Ireland of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida drive up with a carload of cat food and dog food. They have come all the way south from Boca Raton. Animal lovers themselves, they see a need here and are out to remedy the situation.
"You need cat food? Dog food?" they ask. They wear T-shirts that say "LIBERATE LAB ANIMALS." Out of their van come bags and boxes and cans of Nine Lives, Cozy Kitten and other pet chow. Perez is thrilled. She piles the supplies under the tarp. "At last I am all right," she says, standing amid the massed wreckage. "Now my babies can eat."
The jailbirds took wing at noon on the fateful Sunday when Andrew approached South Florida. More than 1,000 inmates from the Dade Correctional Institution, located in the middle of nowhere on the road to the Everglades National Park, were relocated to other jails across the state before the storm hit, said John Anderson, assistant superintendent.
Then came Andrew's winds and with them a literal jailbreak. Stone walls no longer a prison made, nor iron bars a cage. The prison's fence blew away. "It was totally destroyed," Anderson reported. So was much of the roof. "The place shook a little," Anderson allowed. "It was scary in here."
Ninety percent of the 300-strong prison staff are now without housing and are "living in the facility," as Anderson delicately phrases it. In short, the turnkeys have become inmates in their own jail. They aren't complaining about the food, because there isn't any food.
"I wish you could put out the word. I would like to make a plea. We need clothing, food, water, generators, everything. We are in very bad condition down here," the assistant superintendent said.
Further down the road, to the west, is the entrance to the Everglades National Park, closed to the public until further notice. Two-thirds of the pine trees at the entrance are broken, snapped over into inverted V's, dripping turpentine tears, pointing their jagged splinters at the sky. A guard, who has been inside the park, says it all looks like this.
Overhead slowly sail the magnificent clouds of southern Florida, some of the grandest clouds in the world, making fanciful isthmuses and archipelagoes in an celestial ocean of blue. There is a sky-elephant next to a half-scrolled map of England, streaming aloft for 50 miles or more.
A dark curtain of rain is moving up from the south. The first drops are already falling, pattering down in a vast anticlimax.