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5:14 pm
Thu August 23, 2012

A City Leveled By Hurricane Andrew Rebuilds — Again

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 6:43 pm

Twenty years ago, Homestead, Fla., was in the eye of what was then the worst storm to hit the United States.

Fifteen people died directly from Hurricane Andrew and a few dozen more died from injuries later. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. Andrew's 165-mile-per-hour winds took out nearly every building in Homestead, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Families spent hours in lines to get water and ice.

National Guard troops handed out bags of ice but limited how much each family could get.

There was no electricity for weeks. No hot meals. No phones. And few places that were livable.

"The amazing thing about driving through the city of Homestead is that there's not anywhere that you can look where there wasn't pure destruction and everything had to be rebuilt," says Lynda Bell, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner and former mayor of Homestead. "We were all in the same boat, all the businesses, the homeowners." Touring an area just off Highway 1, she notes empty swaths of land. "Those were trailer parks and those of course never came back."

Homestead was built by railroad workers who extended the tracks from Miami through the Florida Keys. When Andrew hit, the population was about 30,000. The city lost about a third of its residents before it began to rebound. By 2007, it was the fastest-growing city in Florida amid a real estate boom.

The farm fields here were relatively cheap. Developers who had run out of property around Miami began gobbling up land.

"Most of the stuff that was built in 2004, 2005, 2006 was the stuff that there was no real control over it, there was no management over it," says Larry Roth, with the Keyes real estate company.

Today, 60,000 residents live in Homestead, but there's been a downside: When the recession hit and the housing market collapsed, it left foreclosures and the skeletons of neighborhoods.

"Actually, you can see we didn't have to travel very far to find this vacant lot that was at one point prepared for a single family, I would guess, out here," says Roth as he points to where foundations have been poured but the builder left town. "The electrical boxes are all in, fire hydrants are all in, so that tells me water and sewer and here and here it sits barren, uncut."

By this summer, RealtyTrac reported that 1 in 18 houses in Homestead was either bank owned or in foreclosure. Still, other parts of the city are growing, with new shopping centers, big-box stores, a hospital and, lighted up in the distance, the shimmering Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The growth is in stark contrast to a decade ago when Homestead was struggling and nearly bankrupt. The federal government all but closed the nearby Air Force base. The tax base was dwindling.

"We've truly been through a lot. I mean, we almost lost our city. We almost lost all the people," says Judy Waldman, a city councilwoman and real estate agent. She says even with all the housing problems, the development saved the town.

"The growth gave us life again. We had nothing. We didn't have a movie theater. We didn't have a hotel. We didn't have anything. And then all of a sudden the world — they discovered us. They started building houses and now our city is amazing," Waldman says.

Downtown Homestead is also coming back. Palm trees line Krome Avenue. The Seminole Theater built for silent movies in the 1920s is being renovated.

A Mexican restaurant, Casita Tejas, is one of the businesses that reopened.

"My dad always taught us to work hard, be honest and don't give up," says owner Cesar Berrones. His father was a migrant worker. He says it was months before this area got electricity and water. A couple of years after the hurricane, Berrones moved across the street where he now owns the building.

"We started doing business and we never looked back," he says.

Before Andrew, Homestead was more like a small town, but Berrones says the character of the city has changed.

"It's all new people, which is good for business. It's good for business, it's grown, but the old friends have gone. It's different," he says.

New and stronger building codes are now in place here and across Florida. Some who live in Homestead complain about the traffic; others, about crime.

When people who lived through Hurricane Andrew talk about it now, they're mostly grateful that their families and the city survived.

"Homestead was built with this pioneer spirit and that has not gone away, and that pioneer spirit is in a lot of people in this town," says Bell, the former mayor.

This city near the Florida Everglades that many thought would never recover will celebrate its centennial next year.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Tropical Storm Isaac is expected to hit the Dominican Republic and Haiti tomorrow. People in Florida are paying close attention, too, as the storm is projected to enter the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.

CORNISH: We're going to take a look back now at one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States. Twenty years ago tomorrow, Hurricane Andrew struck southern Florida. The city of Homestead, south of Miami, was directly in its path.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We are looking right now at pictures of Homestead, which is just ravaged by Hurricane Andrew. We've seen these pictures a lot, but the more we see them, it's almost unbelievable to watch as we see entire...

BLOCK: Dozens of people died, and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. NPR's Kathy Lohr covered the hurricane and recently returned to Homestead to find out how the city and its residents are doing.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Hurricane Andrew's winds gusted above 165 miles per hour and took out nearly every building in Homestead, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Families spent hours in lines to get water and ice. Back then, I saw the frustration in one of these long lines as National Guard troops handed out bags of ice, but limited how much each family could get.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I can give you two bags of ice. Those are my orders.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I got you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I am not going to argue with you. I am not going to argue with you, sir.

LOHR: There was no electricity for weeks, no hot meals, no phones and few places that were livable.

LYNDA BELL: The amazing thing about driving through the city of Homestead is that there's not anywhere that you can look where there wasn't pure destruction and everything had to be rebuilt.

LOHR: Lynda Bell is a Miami-Dade County commissioner and former mayor of Homestead. She takes me on a tour of the area, just off of Highway 1.

BELL: We were all in the same boat, all the businesses, the homeowners. So as you look around - and by the way, you see these empty swaths of land around you? Those are where trailer parks were, and those, of course, never came back.

LOHR: Homestead was built by railroad workers who extended the tracks from Miami through the Florida Keys. When Andrew hit, the population was about 30,000. The city lost about a third of its residents before it began to rebound. By 2007, it was the fastest growing city in Florida amidst a real estate boom.

Here's what happened. The farm fields here were relatively cheap. Developers who had run out of property around Miami began gobbling up land here. Larry Roth is with the Keyes real estate company.

LARRY ROTH: Most of the stuff that was built in 2004, '05, '06 was the stuff that - there was no real control over it. There was no management over it.

LOHR: Today, 60,000 residents live in Homestead, but there's been a downside. When the recession hit and the housing market collapsed, it left foreclosures and the skeletons of neighborhoods.

ROTH: Actually, you can see we didn't have to travel very far to find this vacant lot that was at one point prepared for, I guess, a single family, I would guess out here.

LOHR: Roth points to where foundations had been poured, but the builder left town.

ROTH: The electrical boxes are all in. Fire hydrants are all in. So that tells me water and sewer here, and here it sits barren, uncut.

LOHR: By this summer, RealtyTrac reported that 1 in 18 houses in Homestead was either bank-owned or in foreclosure. Still, other parts of the city are growing with new shopping centers, big-box stores, its own hospital and, lit up in the distance, the shimmering Homestead-Miami Speedway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOHR: This track hosts the final NASCAR race of the season. The growth is in stark contrast with a decade ago when Homestead was struggling and nearly bankrupt. The federal government all but closed the nearby Air Force base. The tax base was dwindling.

JUDY WALDMAN: We've truly been through a lot. I mean, we almost lost our city. We almost lost all of the people.

LOHR: Judy Waldman is a city councilwoman and a realtor. She says even with all the housing problems, the development saved the town.

WALDMAN: The growth gave us life again. We had nothing. I mean, we didn't have a movie theater. We didn't have a hotel. You know, we didn't have anything. And then all of a sudden, the world - they discovered us. They started building houses, and now our city is amazing.

LOHR: Downtown Homestead is also coming back. Palm trees line Krome Avenue. The Seminole Theater, built for silent movies in the 1920s, is still being renovated. A Mexican restaurant, Casita Tejas, is one of the businesses that reopened.

CESAR BERRONES: My dad always taught us to work hard, be honest and, you know, just don't give up.

LOHR: Cesar Berrones owns the place. His father was a migrant worker. He says it was months before this area got electricity and water. A couple of years after the hurricane, he moved across the street where he now owns the building.

BERRONES: We started doing business and we never looked back.

LOHR: Before Andrew, Homestead was more like a small town, but Berrones says the character of the city has changed.

BERRONES: It's all new people, you know, which is good for business. It's good for business, it's grown. But, you know, the old friends have gone. It's different.

LOHR: New and stronger building codes are now in place here and across Florida. Some who live in Homestead now complain about the traffic; others, about crime. When people who lived through Hurricane Andrew talk about it now, they're mostly grateful that their families and the city survived. Former Mayor Lynda Bell.

BELL: Homestead was built with this pioneer spirit and that has not gone away. And that pioneer spirit is in a lot of people in this town.

LOHR: This city near the Florida Everglades that many thought would never recover will celebrate its centennial next year. Kathy Lohr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.