WE were driving down for our annual vacation in the Florida Keys when we passed through this small city. It was a day we'll never forget.
Getting to the Keys meant we had to cross the path of Hurricane Andrew, which had just carved a 30-mile swath across south Florida. On our way down, we usually take an agricultural road - State Road 997. It's more picturesque than the Turnpike, and we often stop off to buy avocados, mangoes, and perhaps some papayas for our stay in the tropics.
The farms that line 997 are lush, producing tomatoes and other produce in the winter, and tropical fruits in the summer and fall. Deep green avocado groves, oriental-looking mango trees, and coconut palms give this region, bordering Everglades National Park, a feeling distinct from the rest of Florida.
The eye of Hurricane Andrew passed right over the Homestead area. When we were still 15 miles away, we saw the beautiful groves totally stripped of their leaves and fruit, telephone poles snapped off like twigs, shingles ripped off roofs, trees torn up by their roots.
The full fury of the storm wasn't apparent until we drew close to Homestead. We drove slowly through the community in stunned silence. Entire blocks of homes - 50 or 100 at a time - were flattened to the ground, as if by a giant hand. Large agricultural buildings were stripped to their steel girders, which were then twisted like pretzels. Local people, most now homeless, huddled in small, quiet groups, or picked at the rubble. Scores of police walked the streets.
I grew up in Florida and saw other hurricanes during those years. But this was something different - the first big blow to hit a highly populated area of the Sunshine State in decades.
Two lessons come out of this terrible event, it seems to me.
First is the wonderful, caring nature of most people. In Andrew's wake, Floridians were at their best. There are many stories, but the one that touched me most concerned a young family - husband, wife, son - whose home was totally wrecked and their personal possessions blown away by the 140-mile-an-hour winds.
The father said what concerned him greatly was the loss of a small bed used by his wife when she was a child. Their son had been using it now. It had vanished in the storm.
The family decided that, with the help of relatives, they would move away, start over in another state. They put everything they had left - a few clothes, four gallons of water, a can opener, some canned goods, children's toys - into their car and were driving out of Dade County.
But on their car radio, they heard about a family with nothing to eat or drink. So they turned around, returned to Homestead, searched out relief workers, and donated the water, the canned goods, the can opener, and the toys, to those who were staying behind to rebuild this city.
The other lesson involves the way we build things here in Florida. Mobile homes are the most vulnerable. In a big blow, they rip apart like tar paper shacks. Even some costly houses collapse like Tinker Toys.
Yet not everything flew apart. We saw old-fashioned houses, built with care and patience out of solid, natural-stone blocks, that survived without a scratch.
Old-fashioned buildings seemed to do better, too. Heavy masonry construction often came through with minimal damage, while modern, glass-covered buildings shattered.
South Florida has strong building codes. But maybe they should be even tougher.
If they were, many of the 180,000 people here who are homeless tonight because of Andrew would be snug in their own beds.