Floridians Work Together In Wake of Hurricane

In other disasters, a period of unity has been followed by resurfacing of old divisions when `routine' sets in

THE voices of Miami are black, white, Latino, Haitian, rich, poor. The distinctions are clear until a big hurricane blows in. Then, for a while, they blur. Everyone stands on common ground.

South Florida is pulling together now. But the question is being asked: How long will the unusual unity last in the wake of Hurricane Andrew?

Wilbur Bell pulls up to a Shell gas station in his gold Mercedes, and he can't help smiling.

For three nights running, people have looted his convenience store in the Perrine neighborhood. "They've probably taken $1,000. So what!" he says. "Let 'em have it.

"When I was a kid growing up in Perrine, my mother used to fix dinner in the afternoon [then] she would go and visit my four sisters - one sister tonight, another sister tomorrow night.... We would sit out in the yard or sit on the porch and talk and look at the stars. Last night was the first time I saw the stars in 30 years."

"What happened was that the hurricane blew this fog away - all the smoke, all the pollution," he says. "I could have a poster made: `We're all equal. We're all the same.' "

Pierre Clark loads his car with Pampers, canned goods, and other relief supplies from an emergency canteen in hard-hit Homestead, Fla.

"Everybody is the same," he says. "Nobody is better. I'm not better than somebody. Everybody is the same now."

Marcie Davis looks down her one-block, well-to-do street with awe. "I don't even recognize this street," she says.

The houses are damaged. The power is out. The trees that used to hide neighbors' houses have fallen in debris-strewn yards. Ms. Davis points to the houses as she talks.

"Those people over there are also [Latinos] and they never talked to us." But the husband "came over the other night with his TV. I found out the story of his life. The neighbors over there we always have problems with because their dogs bark in the night. But their son came over and asked if we needed help.

"I hope that people don't hide behind their walls and shut their doors and, when they no longer can see each other because their foliage has grown back, that they don't make believe each other doesn't exist again," she says. "I hope that what we've learned about each other will band us together on a permanent basis." (Costs of cleanup, Page 9.)

Southern Dade County has seen a week's worth of small heroics. From the time Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida a week ago to the time federal troops arrived on Friday, this region has survived because of a tremendous volunteer effort.

During the storm, Jim O'Neil risked his life to save an elderly neighbor and small child from their ravaged home. Now, neighbors repair each other's houses. Volunteers man soup kitchens, staff shelters, even help direct traffic.

A question for Dade County residents is how long they will continue to get along. The track record from other disasters isn't promising.

"You have an immediate post-disaster solidarity," says Tony Oliver-Smith, a professor of anthropology at the University of Florida. "But as soon as the crisis diminishes, there is a reemergence of a lot of the old schisms."

"There's going to be some nice scenes of people pulling together," adds Charles R. Figley, director of the Psychosocial Stress Research Program at Florida State University. But "I have become rather cynical over the years."

The odds are Miami won't buck the trend, he adds.

These experts disagree about how long the unity can last. When Professor Oliver-Smith studied a Peruvian village buried by an avalanche, he saw divisions reappear within a matter of days. Professor Figley says the community could stick together much longer in the most devastated areas.

"There really will not be a post-trauma period until it begins to simulate routine," he says. That could take months.

But patience is already beginning to wear thin. Two black legislators publicly complained that black areas weren't getting adequate relief.

The head of Dade County's emergency effort went on TV to complain about sluggish federal aid. Such messages helped prompt President Bush to commit 19,500 troops to the region by Saturday. Navy ships were bringing in 2,000 tons of food and relief supplies.

"Americans are soft," says Ruben Greenberg, chief of police of Charleston, S.C., which was hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. He's in Florida helping. "We can endure anything in between commercials. Longer than that, then we get excited. People are demanding: `When will get the street lights up? When are going to get water? When are we going to get electricity?' "

Handling a disaster of this magnitude will take time, he adds.

And an overcoming of fear.

Marcie Davis wants better race relations, but she, like many Miami residents, discretely packs a handgun into a money pouch when she tours hart-hit areas.

Mr. Rodriguez may think everyone's working together, but as he and his fellow Hispanics and blacks gather around a North Carolina church van for food and clothes, three suspicious whites look on 20 feet away.

"A lot of people are getting things they don't need," huffs Henry Morris, a retired Army man.

"These people don't need this stuff," adds Bill Leeper, a maintenance man. "They are following these trucks around.... That's all they're doing. Scavengers!"

One way to extend the unity is to ensure that community representatives, rather than bureaucrats, shape the rebuilding of their communities, Figley says. He suggests a new council of such representatives with a strong advisory role.

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