Reaping the Whirlwind

Hurricane Andrew was a godsend for politicians. The last thing they want is a premature recovery.


First Hurricane Andrew was terrifying, rattling my windows with Druidic shrieks, shaking my doors with a lunatic fury. Then it was depressing, leaving behind a once-lovely neighborhood awash in shattered trees and twisted debris. Then it was tedious, trapping me in a blockaded house without electricity or water. And finally it was surreal. We reached that moment a week after the storm, when George Bush peered out of the grainy black-and-white screen of my tiny, battery-operated television and blithely promised to spend $480 million to raise Homestead Air Force Base from the rubble in which Andrew had entombed it, reanimating it like some Cold War zombie to stare vacantly at a Soviet threat that has ceased to exist.

Bush's pledge to rebuild Homestead—just one chunk of pork, albeit a meaty one, in an unprecedented $8-billion aid package—was the most grotesque act of political pandering I saw in the weeks after the hurricane, but it was hardly the first. Within minutes of Andrew's final howl, the screen of my television overflowed with the bovine faces of politicians taking credit and assigning blame, promising and demanding swag. The particulars varied, but there were a few constant themes: Someone else should have predicted the hurricane earlier, prepared for it better, provided more aid for its victims.

Politicization of disasters is nothing new, of course. In a culture in which politics has largely been reduced to an endless parade of pressure groups proclaiming their own victimization and demanding succor, the casualties of natural catastrophes—whose suffering is both authentic and obvious—are the most difficult to refuse. In 1972 Richard Nixon dispatched his housing secretary, George Romney, to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to investigate the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Agnes. At the conclusion of his visit, as Romney held a press conference, a 63-year-old grandmother rose in front of the TV cameras. "I believe you don't give a damn whether we live or die!" she screamed at the befuddled Romney. Days later, $2 billion in federal largess began cascading into Pennsylvania.

In 1972 Nixon faced re-election, just as Bush did in 1992. But there are other factors that have intensified the politicization of aid for the victims of Hurricane Andrew and hurled it light-years beyond the ordinary dimensions of pork-barreling into a new realm from which we may never emerge. For one thing, Nixon was barely breaking a sweat in his race against the hapless George McGovern. Bush, by contrast, was trailing Bill Clinton in the polls in large part because voters perceived him as a president who cared more about foreign affairs than domestic problems. Then there are the personality differences: Bush can't stand to have anyone angry with him; whatever other criticisms can be made of Richard Nixon, that wasn't one of his problems.

Perhaps Bush's peculiar vulnerabilities wouldn't have mattered so much if Hurricane Andrew had come ashore somewhere else. But Miami is a high-profile city, a powerful media center populated by politicians well schooled in the manipulation of those media. In the days after Andrew, the politicians and the media entered into an extraordinarily symbiotic relationship, using one another to goad Bush into handing over the keys to the cash register. Local officials had virtually an open microphone for unchallenged tirades about the federal government's failure to deliver. Television anchors openly heckled news clips of the president discussing hurricane damage; one radio station repeatedly broadcast the White House phone number and urged its listeners to "give the president a call." Announced one Miami Herald banner headline, two inches high: WE NEED HELP.

It was a truly inspired bit of theater that finally cornered Bush. On August 27, three days after the hurricane, Kate Hale, the head of Dade County's Emergency Management Office, called a press conference. "I want this live!" she snapped at the waiting television crews as she marched into the briefing room. The TV crews obediently began feeding their signals, and Hale climbed onto a chair and launched a scathing attack on the White House. "Enough is enough!" she shouted. "Quit playing like a bunch of kids!" As the cameras pulled in tight for a close-up, tears conveniently welled in her eyes. "Where in the hell is the cavalry?" she demanded. "For God's sakes, where are they? We're going to have more casualties because we're going to have more people dehydrated. People without water. People without food. Babies without formula….I am not the disaster czar down here. President Bush was down here. I'd like him to follow up on the commitments he made."

Predictably, Hale's performance won rave reviews in the Miami news media. The Miami Herald said it was a "movie plea for aid, desperate but determined" and called Hale "a hero to many." Certainly she was effective: Within an hour, Bush promised to send in the U.S. Army.

But there was much that Hale didn't mention during her tearful soliloquy. First and foremost was the reason that the U.S. Army wasn't on the scene: No one in Florida had asked for it. American presidents, with good reason, do not treat local jurisdictions like conquered territories, subject to military occupation at the whim of the White House. Even in civil disturbances, where the military's primary skill—shooting people—is far more relevant than it is in a natural catastrophe, it's rare to see federal troops.

Not only had Florida officials not asked for troops, they had specifically said they didn't want any. The Florida National Guard's hurricane log shows that on August 25, a Guard officer briefing a U.S. Army counterpart told him: "Florida has not requested any support from other states or federal agencies, nor do we project a need."

Then there was the matter of those people without water, people without food. They existed, no doubt about that. But whether they numbered in the hundreds, or the thousands, or the tens of thousands, no one knew—certainly not Kate Hale. According to reports in several newspapers, her office never bothered to conduct a post-hurricane damage assessment, so Dade County had no idea how many people were without food, water, electricity, or housing.

And if the county had known, it probably wouldn't have made much difference. It seems that, in the five years she's headed it, Hale's $612,000-a-year disaster planning office never got around to any actual disaster planning. According to The Miami Herald, the office had only a single copy of a proposed draft of a recovery plan, stowed away somewhere in a cardboard box.

Now, foreseeing the possibility that the Miami area might be hit by a hurricane does not require Jeanne-Dixon–like perceptual powers. Hurricanes have struck Florida 57 times this century, 32 of them in the state's southeastern tip. In some years it's happened as many as three times. Three of the four strongest hurricanes to come ashore in the United States this century passed through South Florida.

Given our history, it's difficult to see why local authorities shouldn't have been able to plan for the aftermath of a hurricane—and to do so without any guidance from the federal government. In fact, if anything, the feds ought to be coming to us for help; we have more experience with hurricanes than they do.

But the first-strike whining of Florida officials in the hours after Hurricane Andrew destroyed this line of reasoning before it ever got off the launching pad. Newspapers running the gamut from The New York Times to USA Today decried "the inadequacy of federal readiness." Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D–Md.) said hurricane victims had been "devastated twice, once by the natural fury of Hurricane Andrew, the second time…at the hand of their own government," as though George Bush and his evil henchmen had been throwing their bodies in front of relief trains bound for Miami.

The common thread running through most of these attacks was that the United States needs a high-powered disaster-planning agency—despite the fact that most of these same critics have nothing but scorn for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the office that currently coordinates Washington's response to catastrophes. If FEMA, with a $750 million-a-year budget, can't get it right, then who can?

The popular answer to that seems to be the Pentagon. "The military—with its speed and discipline—is uniquely able to augment disaster response efforts," argues Sen. Bob Graham (D–Fla.), one of the most enthusiastic boosters of a Salvation Army that really has tanks.

There are certainly aspects of disaster relief—notably the need to clear terrain and establish quick logistical lines—for which the U.S. military is admirably suited. But its capabilities on the ground come at a hideous expense. Military bureaucracy, if anything, is even more costly and complex than its civilian counterpart. The Pentagon's 1992 budget was $313 billion, which consumed nearly 60 percent of discretionary federal spending. I, for one, was hoping to see a good portion of that turned back to taxpayers now that the Cold War is over.

But if the U.S. military is converted into a giant 911 rescue squad, not only will the Pentagon's budget fail to shrink, it may well grow. Imagine the endless intricacies involved in planning for the collapse of Boulder Dam, the meltdown of the Turkey Point nuclear reactor, an earthquake leveling Los Angeles, a typhoon striking Honolulu, a tidal wave hitting Houston. And it won't end there. Once you have a bureaucracy whose entire job is to envision catastrophes, its Cassandras won't stop at the mundane. What if a giant meteor squashed Phoenix? What if a gas leak permeated the New York sewer system and then exploded and the entire city caught fire? What if bubonic plague spread through the bats at Carlsbad Caverns, and then one night a freak wind carried them into El Paso? Of course, once all of these calamities are imagined, the disaster planners must be sure that they have the capacity to respond to each and every one.

This is the reason disaster planning is left to local authorities, who can best envision the kinds of misfortune that are likely to visit their communities and can best prepare for the likely results. To make one agency responsible for every conceivable cataclysm that might happen anywhere in America is to invite prodigious expense, followed closely by breathtaking sloth and then total paralysis.

To get an idea of the way a federal disaster nanny would throw around money, take a look at the way the demands for federal funds pyramided in the weeks after Andrew. First Bush pledged that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the emergency cleanup costs in South Florida instead of the customary 75 percent. Then, as squawks arose from Louisiana (hit by the dying throes of Hurricane Andrew a few days after it came through Miami) and Hawaii (struck a couple of weeks later by Hurricane Iniki), the president promised to pay 100 percent of their costs, too—even though the destruction in Louisiana and Hawaii was nowhere near that in Florida. The sound of dollar bills fluttering in the wind awakened South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings (D), who demanded that Bush retroactively agree to pay 100 percent of the tab for 1989's Hurricane Hugo. No sooner said than done.

By the time Bush and Congress had worn themselves out from stuffing extra goodies into the hurricane aid package, it was $8 billion for Florida alone. The only part that met any resistance was Bush's proposal to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base, which was nearly closed last year as part of a general military cutback and was expected to be on the next list of bases to shut down. Opposition to the reconstruction of Homestead, however, represented not a heroic burst of political courage but rather an act of shared venality: Several congressmen suddenly sensed the opportunity to save hitherto-doomed bases in their own districts. Closing Homestead meant one less base would have to bite the dust elsewhere.

Virtually every other boondoggle that was suggested was accepted. Special hurricane counseling for the deaf? Sure. Emergency grants to hire performance artists to dress up like Santa Claus? Why not? After all, as one aide to the House Appropriations Committee noted in a widely reprinted quote, "Simply put, our job is to start shoveling bucks south." Some politicians were positively unhinged by an opportunity to spend money for a cause that was utterly beyond criticism. My favorite was Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston (D), who breezily dismissed questions about who would pick up the tab. "It will be paid for out of the deficit," Johnston explained. "The deficit is big enough to encompass this too." All I can say to that is that we here in Miami thank God for prescient public servants like Johnston who were prudent enough to squirrel away a nice large deficit for use on a rainy day.

With so much federal cash flooding into South Florida, naturally everyone felt entitled to their fair share. There was a predictable rash of con men posing as homeless people or faking hurricane damage. (Though no Floridian was so imaginative as the South Carolina woman who in 1989 applied for a FEMA grant on the ground that Hurricane Hugo made her pregnant.)

Private citizens who exhibited excess enthusiasm in pursuit of a few hundred dollars in relief funds were jailed. Regrettably, no such remedy was available for local officials who observed the proper bureaucratic niceties in committing their far more egregious acts of thievery. The city of Oakland Park, located a good 40 miles north of where the hurricane came ashore, suffered nothing more than a few broken tree limbs. Yet the city billed FEMA for nearly $160,000 in overtime wages—much of it to salaried officials like the city manager and the police chief who had never before qualified for overtime.

Then there are the city fathers of Coral Gables, where I live. Upon learning that FEMA pays for storm-related landscaping damage, Coral Gables promptly submitted a bill for 7,000 new trees. The surrounding city of Miami, with 633 miles of streets, most of them landscaped, may actually turn a profit on the hurricane.

The city officials caught red-handed in these scams haven't displayed the faintest sign of embarrassment or offered even the vague semblance of an apology. The conventional wisdom among politicians is that local folks applaud all attempts to fleece the federal government; getting caught just shows that you were doing your job, trying to bring home the bacon.

Perhaps that's so most of the time. But I suspect there's something about a disaster that alters perceptions, at least temporarily. There is an elusive but palpable sense in Miami that our leaders, no matter how much money they brought showering into town, failed us. Public opinion polls taken in the hurricane zone show that storm victims had a higher opinion of everyone else—the military, the Red Cross, their insurance adjusters, even the benighted FEMA—than they did of state government. Fiery denunciations of the federal relief effort no longer get much ink. Kate Hale, whose convenient televised breakdown induced The Miami Herald to label her a hero, has quietly lowered her profile locally to the point of invisibility. (Perhaps this is because Hale has taken her act on the road. She turned up a few weeks ago on a nationally televised talk show, where she beamed as the hostess greeted her as Miami's own Mother Teresa. Better that Hale had remained in Miami to hunt under the desks for that recovery plan.)

Some of the reasons for the popular discontent are probably unfair. There are undoubtedly some citizens who blame local officials for the hurricane itself, or at least for the lingering pain it left behind. A discomfiting number of Americans seem to feel that they ought to have constitutional immunity from the forces of nature—that for every injury there is a guilty party who must be punished. One unfortunate consequence of the public tantrum of local officials in the wake of the hurricane was that it encouraged this belief that Andrew was somebody's fault.

But there are other, more compelling reasons for Miamians to feel anger with local authorities. Right at the top of the list is that they demeaned us in front of the world. They painted us as people who, confronted by adversity, were unwilling or unable to help ourselves. They made us sound, by turns, stupid and callous and pathetic.

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."

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."

Glenn Garvin, a former editor of Inquiry magazine, is author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras (Brassey's).