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Resilience and Rebuilding

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Posted: Friday, September 1, 2017 12:15 am

South Dade Community Continues to Stand Together at Luncheon

Saluting 25 Years of Recovery from Hurricane Andrew

   Couple the strength of the Economic Development Council with the celebrations of the rebuilding errort in 25 years since the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and you have enough to fill the Redland Country Club. Over 200 in attendance remembered the horror of August 24th, 1992 and the Herculean restoration effort. The capacity crowd were here to celebrate how we are reaching heights above and beyond all expectations. There were farmers, business professionals, public servants and civic clubs in attendance.

Irony wasn’t intended for the day as people had to avoid rain and a flooded parking lot (from what was to later strengthen into Hurricane Harvey). This day was dedicated to not only what people suffered through, but more importantly, to what they and the communities became in the aftermath.

   Rene Infante and the Economic Development Council of South Miami Dade (EDC) created a theme of, “Hurricane Andrew: 25 Years Later”, Resilience and Rebuilding, words repeated by virtually everyone with every story shared.

   Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, acknowledged the tremendous impact of what has been called, ‘The Storm That Changed South Florida’. U.S. Congressman Carlos Curbelo spoke in praise of what people endured and what local leaders have accomplished in rebuilding. He passed the microphone to his colleague, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart. For Diaz-Balart, the memories were of being with one of the first relief supply caravans and literally not able to find     Homestead in what was a totally unrecognizable, barely navigable landscape. From that moment on, as the state struggled with what actions would help the most, he also knew, “we were going to rebuild and be stronger than ever.”

   Ron Magill of Zoo Miami kept the program going with vivid recollections of the incredible destruction. He had the packed room laughing with his recollection of monkeys running down the road after the storm and shared his now iconic photo of the zoo’s pink flamingoes crowded into a zoo bathroom waiting out the storm. The zoo, a landmark some thought would be permanently closed, has flourished. In fact, it has become a resource for zoos in other parts of the country facing natural disasters.

   Infante spoke passionately of the early members of the EDC and those who have joined since; all committed to the area’s rebuilding. He introduced the short film, “Remember the Time”. The still-painful views of what looked like a war zone gave way to new homes, schools and structures such as the Homestead-Miami

 Speedway, the restored Seminole Theatre, and the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center. Thriving agricultural fields replaced flattened crops and splintered trees.

     After Andrew, when area farmers made it to     

their groves and fields, they were greeted by fallen trees and acres of debris, much of which was their destroyed irrigation equipment and machinery. One farmer who survived Andrew’s devastation and survived the rebuilding, replanting, production and distribution, is Larry Dunagan. After Andrew, Dunagan served on the Farm Service Agency (FSA) who met two times a day in the aftermath of the storm.  Dunagan pointed out, “half the avocado crop was still on the trees when Andrew hit.  Eighty percent of the trees had blown over and needed to be cut back and reset with braces.  It would be three years until full production was restored.”

   Dunagan went on to say that row crops saved many farmers.  “Okra was the only major crop in the fields when Andrew hit.  Once the fields were cleared, when new or repaired equipment was available, farmers began to plant. By picking time, the packing houses were up and running. Lime groves were destroyed as trees had blown like tumbleweed into partially remaining fences.”

   Michael Finney, new President and CEO, Miami-Dade Beacon Council, expressed admiration for what has been done and his excitement to be a part of the next phase of growth.

   U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Keynote Speaker, spoke of hope for Texas in the coming days. In 1992, she was in her third year of Congress when the grim statistics mounted of 28,000 homes destroyed, 100,000-plus damaged, 82,000 businesses impacted, hundreds of millions of dollars needed. “We were not prepared for the scope at the community, state, or federal level.” In her theme of “Recovery, Resilience, and Growth”, she reminded the audience that lessons were learned and building codes were revamped for the good of all. Research dollars were applied to gain knowledge of how to respond to storms. Amidst the huge logistical and financial resources required, she knew fighting to keep Homestead Air Base was vital. “What a battle that was. The base was nearly destroyed, but we had to keep it open. Yes, it was a different mission and configuration, but look at it today.” She pointed out the two national parks as well; more than 70,000 acres damaged and now, they are a $300 million-dollar economic boost. She praised the agricultural community, knowing of multi-generational families who could not rebuild while others were able to find their way through the destruction. “We in Congress will renew the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), but we must also fight to keep insurance rates reasonable,” she said. There were accolades too for the thousands of volunteers who came from outside the area to bring supplies and willing hands. Neighbors helping neighbors were joined by strangers and friendships rose from the debris.

   Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava of District 8 and Commissioner Dennis Moss of District 9 joined to bring many recent elements of our communities together for a series of discussions and planning sessions. The resulting campaign, “South Dade, More To Explore” was unveiled a few months ago. With the EDC having the lead on the campaign, brochures were at every place setting showing photos and descriptions of the region's diverse population, geography, cuisine and attractions. Planned branding and marketing efforts will reach well beyond the state.

   Commissioner Levine Cava was present this day to give the first ever Explorer Award to Commissioner Moss. She eloquently praised all he did during and since the terrible day of Hurricane Andrew.  Moss asked his wife, his staff, and members of the EDC to stand for applause. He acknowledged the late Alvah Chapman as key to the “We Will Rebuild” organization that preceded the EDC. In citing all the efforts, he was stirring in his comments about how people of all races, ethnic groups and religions worked side-by-side. “We must stand against the KKK, white supremacists and those who foster bigotry and hate. We showed how it was done right.”

   Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter had earlier said, “What a huge turnout. Homestead is headed in the right direction; everything we’re doing is phenomenal.” Porter then presented the second Explorer award to Robert (Bob) Epling, a man who was in the forefront of the recovery in his roles with then Community Bank and We Will Rebuild. With no electricity and severely damaged facilities, people had no access to their money. Epling set up old-fashioned paper and cash procedures for people until power could be restored. In talking about the awe-inspiring efforts, he shared the story of a church that had been destroyed and a religious group quickly arrived and in a “barn raising fashion”, rebuilt the church in a single day.

   Many memories were shared this day. Memories that will stay with all that endured the worst storm in the history of the United States forever. Two of which were these.

     John Maas’s Homestead law office was destroyed, but he had a partner in Coral Gables and temporarily worked in that office. The Homestead Board of Realtors office wasn’t terribly damaged, yet they lost all their members. Faced with an empty building with a mortgage, Maas leased it and moved in. Part of the agreement was to allow him first option to buy the building and he’s been there ever since.

     Eugene Berry, Florida City Commissioner for 32 years, was with Florida Power and Light in 1992. Getting to work was a priority and he rarely had less than 12-16 hour days. “My daughter was a senior in high school and went to Daytona to stay with her older sister. We didn’t get power back to our house until Thanksgiving and all the repairs weren’t finished until almost Christmas. People couldn’t believe I worked for FPL and didn’t have power, but we were taking care of others.”

   If there was a common theme on this day of remembrance, it was that. We came together and took care of each other.


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