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The first attempts to get it "right" are already under way: There's a widespread effort to ban mobile homes on the grounds that they're unsafe. "That seems like a lot of bull to me," says Myrna Stampler, a secretary who lives in a mobile home in unincorporated Dade County. "Sure, a lot of mobile homes blew away during the hurricane. But so did a bunch of entire subdivisions of $100,000 homes. Are they going to ban $100,000 homes? It sounds to me like a lot of these guys just want to use safety as an excuse to decide what kind of people can live in their towns."
Even uglier than the social-engineering schemes–which ultimately, I suspect, will be no match for the malicious intelligence and hardscrabble obstinacy of their intended targets–is the way local governments have joined with the construction industry to prevent timely and affordable rebuilding. Much of Dade County is in ruins. About 135,000 dwellings were damaged by the hurricane, perhaps 28,000 completely destroyed. About 82,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed. It would take local contractors a decade or more to do all the work. Even the simplest tasks, such as getting a window pane replaced, require going on waiting lists of at least two months.
With so much work waiting to be done, and plenty of money from insurance companies and the federal government available to finance it, hundreds of out-of-town companies have come to Miami to help. It's a classic case of market forces at work–or it would be, if local governments and contractors hadn't entered into a cabal to thwart them. As Charles Lennon, executive director of the South Florida Builder's Association, observed: "We don't need 6,000 unemployed carpenters from Massachusetts clogging up Interstate 95 looking for a job." To see that they won't be, Dade County officials within days of the hurricane ruled that out-of-county contractors can't do any work until they pass a temporary licensing test. And that test will be given...sometime. In early October, county officials still hadn't gotten around to scheduling the first exam.
It needn't have been this way. Miami didn't have to go down the path of entitlements and protectionism and lining up at the trough. McClellanville didn't.
You've probably never heard of McClellanville, and that's part of the explanation for why its path diverges from that of Miami. McClellanville is a flinty little fishing village of 450 or so souls, located in the middle of nowhere about 35 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. Most people can't even find McClellanville on a map, but Hurricane Hugo had no trouble locating it in 1989. The town was battered by 138-mile-an-hour winds and a 20-foot storm surge. In short, it was the Homestead of Hurricane Hugo.
Except McClellanville didn't have a big Knight-Ridder newspaper or high-powered network-owned television stations to proclaim its status as a victim. It didn't have any sleek politicians to pound on doors in Washington. McClellanville didn't really have anything. "I think I heard the governor say once that the state would rebuild the docks, which is a pretty big deal in a fishing village," recalls Debbie Thames, who with her husband owns the local hardware store. "But every dock I know of that got rebuilt, it was done by the guy who owns it."
In McClellanville, it never occurred to anyone that the federal government would come rebuild their town. Instead, the citizens got to work a few hours after the hurricane. They dug their own homes out of the mud and the slime that Hugo left behind; then they went next door and dug their neighbors out. They went on that way for months. There was help from outside, of course, especially from private charities, and nobody in McClellanville felt shy about taking it. But no one counted on it, either.
Three years later, most of the scars left by Hugo have disappeared. Folks hardly even talk about it anymore–or didn't, until Andrew. Since then they've been watching the news stories out of Miami with interest. Once in a while, a reporter calls to ask if the people of McClellanville have any advice for the people of Miami. They always choose their words painstakingly.
"I don't want to insult your community," Thames says carefully. "But I think that, in certain respects, you're going about things wrong down there. This thing is an act of God–there isn't anyone responsible for it. It's done, and you just have to put it behind you and get on with it. There's always a lot of political hype after a disaster. But when it comes down to clearing away the rubble and debris and getting started on the rebuilding, you'd better do it yourself."