In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida like a bomb went off. And like today’s images in Charley’s wake — and ones that will broadcast from the next big one, the next time — the indelible memories of human endurance bear closer scrutiny for what they reveal of our own nature.
We are builders. That drive is a necessary component of our survival as a species. In South Florida, for instance, the collaboration called “We Will Rebuild” was created in the rapid assessment by public officials — all the way to the White House — of the coordination by private business and public entities of what was needed to bring South Florida back. Everyone put his or her shoulder to the wheel.
The same energy and can-do spirit will spring to action where Charley damaged families, lives and landscapes, as will turn again to the next hurricane that ravages the coast.
Back in 1992, Florida City, Homestead and surrounding communities were flattened.
These areas had a high proportion of poor. Their economies were rural and agricultural — abutting Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. The military base at Homestead was destroyed.
The aftermath of Hurricane Andrew spurred business and political leaders to lay a new foundation for the area’s economic future. Public buildings and infrastructure benefited. New sports facilities, to attract motor-race and baseball fans, were constructed with optimism. A plan was conceived by politically connected individuals to create the largest privatized commercial airport in the United States out of the ruined air base.
It is important to see what did not happen.
After Hurricane Andrew, a group of civic-minded architects and land-use planners — supported by area educational institutions — undertook a creative effort that involved local citizens in a design process to re-imagine a better built environment to serve the economic needs of the area. U.S. Highway 1, the primary artery and only way to the Florida Keys, the national marine sanctuary and national wildlife refuges of the Keys, was a special focal point.
Before Andrew, the strip resembled any tawdry stretch of fast-food restaurants, gas stations and retail outlets in Florida. The redesign effort after Andrew emphasized integrating the economic potential of the nearby national parks and treasurers of the Florida Keys, including a detailed plan how to retain the historic and cultural aspects of what was already there, though fading.
Today, the concept of creating “gateways” to national parks by focusing on what tourists expect from unique, high-quality destinations has gained traction in many areas of the nation. Lots of residents liked Homestead and Florida City the way it was and might have been inclined to accept innovative planning that capitalized on the amenities of what nature had provided. But they were never given that chance.
Although Hurricane Andrew provided a model for improving what a hurricane had wiped out, for a variety of reasons the opportunity was missed. For instance, the plan to build a major commercial airport — supported by then-county Commissioner Alex Penelas, now Miami-Dade’s mayor and a U.S. Senate candidate — eventually foundered on environmental laws, but not without wasting tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.
Whatever innovations had been drafted on paper to re-imagine the services and economic opportunities that could be provided by U.S. 1 were left in the dust by property owners and local government when building permits were pulled and concrete poured.
Strangely enough, although the memories of Hurricane Andrew are still searing for some, what came back through human nature looks pretty much like what had been built before it was flattened by nature.
Today, a housing boom has transformed South Florida. It is not unlike past housing booms, except that in the case of Miami-Dade County, after Homestead and Florida City are developed there will be no more farmland to develop.
Farmers of row crops, buffeted by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), have turned to farming housing lots and resisted governmental efforts to protect the historic and rural character of the region. Banking and speculators for whom national parks are either impediments to growth or opportunities remain solid as the neon signage that sprang back from the narrow setbacks on U.S. 1.
It is difficult to see opportunity in misfortune when every impulse is to regain opportunity in the same place it existed before.
Charley, too, will recede to memories, and eventually people will recall of it little more than a line on a squiggly chart of past hurricanes. What we design and build in its path will endure a little longer, but how we are driven to build and how we conceive the landscape that holds us is the greater testament to our creativity, compassion and worth as a model for future generations.
ALAN FARAGO, a longtime writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at email@example.com.