THE United States Army is mobilizing a massive relief effort for hurricane-ravaged south Florida.
Its planes and helicopters are flying materiel to staging areas. The list of promises is long: up to 25,000 troops, 10,000 tents, 10,000 battery-powered radios, 5,400 portable toilets, 5,000 rolls of plastic sheeting, generators, insect repellent, and water-storage tanks.
But here on the ground, the federal presence is just beginning to be felt.
It has been eight days since Hurricane Andrew tore through Florida City, a small agricultural community 25 miles southwest of Miami. Residents here still get more help from local and state officials and volunteers than from the federal government.
The Army has set up two field kitchens in Florida City and two more in neighboring Homestead. But volunteers staff the 17 food-distribution centers most residents go to. The men and women who patrol the streets wear Army uniforms, but they're Florida National Guard troops.
The National Guard was called up in Florida the day after Andrew. By Day 6, the US Army was only beginning to set up tents for the homeless. Even so, it was volunteer officials from neighboring counties who cleared the tent sites of debris.
"The Army wants to come here and save this place," says David Whidden, looking up at four dull green helicopters in the sky. "Look! You see $10 million worth of helicopters right here.... All they have done is spend our taxes to fly these clowns around."
Mr. Whidden, road superintendent for Glades County, Fla., heads a small crew involved in the voluntary clearing operation.
Since Wednesday, many local officials have publicly criticized the sluggishness of the federal response. But federal disaster relief is always slow, according to those who have been through previous natural disasters.
"All the volunteer organizations are going to be there before the federal government," says Reuben Greenberg, chief of police for Charleston, S.C., which was hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. "They don't have red tape and all that. It takes awhile for the feds to make an assessment."
Since Hurricane Hugo hit, the Charleston police have traveled to several disaster sites - a kind of repayment for the outside aid the city received. After the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit San Francisco in October 1989, Chief Greenberg says, the Santa Cruz police had realistic expectations.
"They said: `Hey, they're not going to be here for a week. We know that from the last time. So they just started keeping their records. They weren't upset. And, like they said, a week later they got all the services from FEMA."
FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the disaster relief efforts of 27 federal agencies. The agency had hoped to clean up its image with a quick response to Hurricane Andrew.
One of the first National Guard units to arrive here in Florida City was the 1st Battalion of the 116th Field Artillery. By Tuesday afternoon it had set up next to a battered McDonalds restaurant on US 1. The troops began to reimpose order, man busy intersections that had lost stoplights, and guard stores.
At first, "no one realized the amount of devastation out here," says Capt. Stephen Dowdie of the Guard. As the proportions of the devastation became clearer - Florida City was one of the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew - the Guard began to help coordinate relief activities with local officials and volunteer agencies.
By Sunday, the operation was beginning to click. "I'm starting to see the big plan come together," says Major Tim Sullivan, who had 780 soldiers under his command Sunday and expected another 200 to 300 that day.
The Guard here is turning its relief efforts to areas outside the relief jurisdiction of city officials. On Saturday, it hooked up a Florida church's hot-meal and medical operation with a large apartment complex of 300 Hispanics that lay just outside city limits. On Sunday, Major Sullivan was making plans to fly over outlying areas in a helicopter donated by another county.
The same day a FEMA official showed up looking for help to set up a base of operations in Florida City.
As the federal presence grows, the thrust of the relief operation will change, Sullivan says. The Army will provide food and shelter, allowing the National Guard to concentrate on providing security. "The focus is going to start changing a lot once you provide basic needs," Sullivan says.
That change will take weeks, however, because the needs for relief are so massive, Army officials acknowledged at a press conference Sunday.
Ironically, the 1st Battalion was scheduled to be deactivated Sept. 1 because of military budget cuts, Captain Dowdie says. "What's going to happen next time?"