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The worst of it is that the hurricane showed us just the opposite about ourselves. Miami, like any other large American city, can be a tough place, full of urban alienation, ethnic tension, and criminal violence. Columnist Dave Barry once wrote that when he first moved to Miami, neighbors kept leaning over his back fence and greeting him: "Hola! Mucho gusto a conocerle! No voy a matarle!" ("Hi! Nice to meet you! I'm not going to kill you!")
But as Hurricane Andrew retreated into the Everglades, Miami–without the help of human-resources counselors, urban development grants, or racially balanced neighborhood advisory boards–became a community. It started in my neighborhood within the first hours after Andrew passed. Virtually every block for two miles in every direction was littered with uprooted trees, making vehicular travel impossible. Before the hurricane, the trees would have lain there until City Hall sent someone to move them. Instead, a small army of neighbors swarmed through the streets armed with mini-chainsaws, hacking the trees up and stacking them alongside the roads. By sundown all the streets in the neighborhood were passable.
That was just the beginning. Soon neighbors who had never met were sharing their caches of food, water, and batteries. On some blocks, where the storm perversely knocked out power on one side of the street while leaving it working on the other side, long extension cords snaked across roads, connecting haves to have-nots. In some neighborhoods, it was easy to pick out the homes that still had functioning telephones from the lines of neighbors waiting outside for their turn.
These things weren't accomplished through orders delivered by George Bush or Kate Hale or a National Guard commander. In fact, they weren't accomplished consciously at all. People helped one another spontaneously because if they didn't, no one else would. All they had was one another. Soon, they began taking pride in their can-do spirit and ingenuity.
Bureaucrats, however, recoil from spontaneity like vampires from a cross. Their attempts to regain control were alternately hilarious and maddening.
The day after the hurricane, as I ventured out in search of flashlight batteries, I was delighted to see that the malfunctioning traffic lights on Southwest 8th Street, a major east-west thoroughfare, had been replaced by a volunteer army of amateur traffic cops who directed vehicles with both efficiency and elan. Sure enough, by the next morning, newscasters were reading stern warnings that nobody was allowed to direct traffic without first attending a county traffic-directing class.
Private acts of charity were so numerous in the first days after the storm that help seemed to come from all directions. Within 48 hours of the hurricane's end, the southbound lanes of Interstate 95 were clogged with private relief convoys from Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and all points in Florida. Soon after, aid arrived from Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, and Canada.
Still, the most impressive outpouring was right here at home. Literally thousands of citizens just north of Miami in Broward and Palm Beach counties, mostly unscathed by the hurricane, simply loaded up their cars with anything that would help–food, water, ice, batteries, lanterns–and drove south looking for people who needed help. Local radio stations broadcast nearly nonstop offers of help and news of collection points for donations.
Admittedly, the generosity of contributors sometimes exceeded the size of their brainpans. One disk jockey plaintively asked listeners to stop donating so many Ouija boards.
The vast majority of the aid, however, was on target. Over and over again, I was awed by the concealed depth of Miami's compassion. Some of the stories that week simply defied words. One afternoon a television station interviewed a bedraggled Homestead woman whose house had been leveled by the storm. She couldn't stop to think about that now, the woman said; she was too busy trying to scavenge food for her family. With a sad smile, she added that she'd expected to spend the day differently–it was her daughter's sixth birthday. Within three hours, the little girl had eight birthday cakes.
Hearing that kind of story made me feel good about my city and my neighbors. Local officials, however, had a different reaction: They felt threatened any time citizens acted on their own, without adult supervision. Unbelievably, they began broadcasting appeals for everyone to stay away from the hurricane zone; disorganization, rather than hunger or thirst or illness or misery, became Public Enemy No. 1. Better that the battered residents of Florida City swelter in 95-degree heat without ice than suffer the indignity of disorganized ice.
The blunt fact was that the enormity of Andrew's destruction overwhelmed organized relief efforts–including not only those mounted by local government but also the Red Cross and even the military–for weeks. The free-lance efforts of individual citizens helped cover the gaps. In several cases, private relief convoys blundered into entire towns in remote areas of southern Dade County that had been completely overlooked by everyone else.
But eventually the propaganda bombardment from local officials took its toll. If we weren't needed–if our efforts to help were just a pain in the ass that made things worse–then why bother? Anyway, that's what the Army is there for; let the Pentagon take care of it. By early October, I was able to drive the 20 miles to Homestead without seeing a single private relief vehicle on the road.
Meanwhile, the thirst of local governments to dominate the relief effort has not been slaked. When the business community formed We Will Rebuild, an umbrella organization for donations to the recovery effort, local officials clamored for seats in its inner council. They got them–and, not surprisingly, though We Will Rebuild had raised $17.5 million by early October, the only money it had spent was on its administrator's $150,000-a-year salary. Instead of trying to solve immediate needs–temporary housing and the like–the group was bogged down in endless debates about land banks for the homeless and other long-term social-engineering problems.
Social engineering, in fact, may be just about the only growth industry in South Florida right now. Local planners can barely conceal their glee that Andrew's winds blew away so many of their most troublesome obstacles–that is, people, whose nettlesome presence constantly upsets the technocratic equilibrium. Scarcely a day goes by without a column in The Miami Herald insisting that this time local officials will see to it that Dade County is rebuilt "right."