South Florida Cleanup Quick, Well Planned
Being prepared for an emergency pays off
MIAMI — SOUTH Florida is proving the old axiom true: Being prepared pays off.
Its cleanup in the aftermath of Monday's hurricane is something close to extraordinary, at least from downtown Miami northward.
Within the first 36 hours after Hurricane Andrew struck:
* City and county crews cleared the debris from major highways and streets.
* Florida Power & Light Company restored electricity to four-fifths of the 3 million people who lost power in the storm.
* Southern Bell maintained remarkably good telephone service despite power outages to most of its crucial central stations in the region.
The efficiency demonstrated here stands in stark contrast to the tortuous cleanup after Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston, S.C., on Sept. 22, 1989.
"Many of the lessons that were learned in Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina ... are being put into effect in this disaster," US Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida said Tuesday.
In part, response to Andrew was better because local officials and public utilities here regularly practice disaster-preparedness. Another factor: Local radio and TV stations weren't knocked out in south Florida as they were in Charleston. The news media play an important role in getting timely information to people stranded by a disaster.
Finally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency aims to clean up its image as it cleans up south Florida. FEMA coordinates 27 agencies that dispense federal disaster aid. It stumbled badly in responding to Hugo.
"You're going to find it's a lot different ball game," promises Jay Eaker, a FEMA spokesman. "This is not a take-your-time-we'll-recover-eventually type of thing." It's coordinating a rapid-response effort - something it was not asked to do for Hugo victims.
Rapid response requires close coordination of county officials, who make the initial request for outside aid, and state and federal officials, who carry through on the request. Here in south Florida, the coordination worked beautifully, officials say.
Hours after Andrew hit, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) declared the area a disaster. By evening, President Bush had signed a measure releasing federal disaster funds. National Guard units from North Carolina and Indiana were brought in. They worked alongside local law enforcement to keep order and deter looters. Local police worked 12-hour shifts. Law enforcement officials announced a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in Dade County, including Miami. At press time, the county had spent two relatively quiet nights.
Private-sector efforts complemented the public sector's rapid response. Utilities put into effect their emergency plans. Florida Power & Light shut down its two nuclear power stations in the area before the storm hit. Southern Bell kept the telephone system working even though Hurricane Andrew knocked out power at 24 of 38 of Bell's central office stations. Bell used backup generators and is bringing in another 600 to keep its smaller switching operations going.
The rapid restoration of services in northern Dade County can't be repeated in southern Dade, where Andrew's force was concentrated. Weeks and perhaps months of work lie ahead.
"You can't prepare for what's happened in south Dade," one police official told reporters Tuesday. "But the plans that we have to deal with it seem to be working."
A raft of volunteers have also helped ease the crisis.
James Shultz had never volunteered for the Red Cross before. But hours before Hurricane Andrew hit, he was pressed into service as manager of one of the Red Cross's area shelters.
"It was one of the most affirmative activities in my life," recalls Mr. Shultz, a University of Miami professor. Young and old, rich and poor, came together to spend the night in a Miami high school.
THE night after the storm, Shultz announced that Miami's homeless might be bused in. It never happened. But the next morning, some children thought homeless had come in. "And this one child said to the other: `Do you know where they put the homeless people?' And the other one looked at him and said: `Well, you know, you're kind of homeless too.' I thought that was remarkable."
In all, the Red Cross is operating more than 200 shelters in south Florida. But longer term housing will be needed for the estimated 75,000 people left homeless. One possibility: use motels for shelter.
FEMA has set up a toll-free number for people to apply for temporary housing and is scrambling to set up local centers.
So far, residents of even the most devastated areas appear willing to wait for relief, even if it is slow.