FLORIDA City - the last town on the American mainland before the rich ground descends another foot or two and the swamp becomes Florida Bay and the Keys - was no picture postcard even before hurricane Andrew hit.
In one of the poorest cities in the country, some neighborhoods had the stark, jerry-built look and several-people-per-room crowding of the third-world Caribbean.
The hurricane simply blew down the worst of it.
Therein lies the opportunity opened up in the massive post-Andrew rebuilding of South Florida: to build it back better than it was. Not just in poor patches like this one, but all over the vast, unplanned suburban sprawl south of Miami, some of the slate has been cleaned.
Andrew caused "a lot of hurt, a lot of pain," says Pastor John Hoskins, who started the Covenant Community Development Corporation recently in a bare-bulb, bare-floor, bright- yellow former Florida City nightclub. "But it has also directed a lot of funds here."
"I don't know when this opportunity will be available again," he says.
Cities have rebuilt themselves after natural disasters, such as the great fires in San Francisco, London, and Chicago or the earthquake in Lisbon, "and they have emerged to be much better cities," says architect and town planner Andres Duany in his office in Coral Gables at the edge of Hurricane Andrew's path.
South Dade County was following the pattern of Los Angeles in spreading out into a suburban sea without the centers or boundaries of traditional towns and neighborhoods. And because of state requirements that streets, sewers, water mains, and power lines move in ahead of development, the county could not afford more growth. Highway 1, the main north-south artery, was always jammed.
"Miami was choking on its own growth," Mr. Duany says.
When the hurricane hit last Aug. 24, the suburbs did not function as traditional towns should, he says. Without public centers, people in need did not know aid was being dispersed three blocks away because there was no obvious place to look for it.
"The performance was so awful that we really thought it would change the model," Duany says.
Planners and designers in South Florida, with the support of the main coordinating group, We Will Rebuild, have spent months trying to steer some of the rebuilding momentum into more economical, appealing, and ecologically viable patterns. More than 130
architects took part in one major post-hurricane design session alone.
Duany and his wife and business partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, have been so consumed in the all-volunteer effort that their 12-architect firm nearly went broke this winter. This indicates the depth of commitment from a much-in-demand couple who architectural historian Vincent Scully says have created "the most powerful and popular movement in architecture in the past 200 years."
Whether south Dade County will come back improved, after all the insurance money and federal aid are spent and reconstruction completed, says Duany, "remains to be seen." Extent of the damage
The pull toward the status quo is powerful.
"People just want to get back to normal," says Joe Abrell, spokesman for We Will Rebuild who is on loan from an insurance company. "They have the same resistance to innovation now that they had before."
The scope of the work involved in putting south Florida back together is visible in the mountains of debris out on the edges of the Everglades from 35,000 homes and countless commercial buildings that were demolished. Another 30,000 homes sustained major damage. Total debris amounts to 30 years worth of landfill space.
In the meantime, some 30,000 people appear to have moved out of Dade County permanently, many of them to Broward, one county north. The number of refugees could be as high as 50,000.
In Homestead, one in seven businesses closed and never reopened. Because of federal rules for flood plains, 11,000 houses will have to be elevated 12 feet, at a steep cost, for owners to qualify for insurance and mortgages.
The hurricane is costing insurance companies $16 billion in claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute, wiping out 10 small insurance companies. The previous record for catastrophic losses in one year was a mere $7.6 billion in 1989, which saw both Hurricane Hugo and the World Series earthquake in San Francisco.
The federal government has committed another $9 billion to South Florida hurricane relief, although some of that amount was coming in before the hurricane.
About 18,000 homes in south Dade County were not insured at all. Church-based or religious volunteers - Quakers, Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Mennonites, and Unitarians by the thousands - have concentrated on helping these families. By last month, more than 26,000 volunteers had repaired almost 3,000 homes and rebuilt 449.
Yet only 5 to 20 percent of the repair work on hurricane-damaged homes is complete, judging from an informal county survey and Mr. Abrell's educated guesses.
Now hurricane season is less than a month away. Three major Atlantic storms are forecast, and many houses are still without permanent roofs. "It's going to be a tense summer," Abrell says. Redesigning Dade County
The building where Pastor Hoskins runs the Covenant Community Development Corporation and a Marriage and Family Enrichment Center packed in 500 people the night of the hurricane, says Ethel Buckley, owner of the building and a neighborhood matron known as "Moms." She scraped her own money together for diapers and some groceries for people in those first few days.
Here in the northwest part of Florida City, most people are farm workers, many of them immigrants from the Caribbean. Three out of five are renters, so they are not getting any homeowners-insurance checks. Most of the members of Mr. Hoskins's community development corporation earn less than $12,000 a year, he says.
Poor people can least afford the modern style of development with minimal community infrastructure - that is, little public space, few public buildings, and meager public transport.
"The poor are public-realm people," Duany says.
Duany has developed a plan for Florida City based on the principles he and Ms. Plater-Zyberk have distilled from traditional American towns laid out before the advent of the automobile.
"The best thing a planner can do for affordable housing is to make it possible to live with one less car," he says, estimating the total cost of owning and driving the average car at $6,000 a year.
He identified seven neighborhoods and one industrial district. He plotted two simple bus lines, back and forth, up and down, that could enable a Florida City resident to live car-free with a public investment in just two city buses.
Each neighborhood has a center, with civic buildings like churches, schools, social services offices, or community halls. He seeks to free up some land for green commons. The aim is a neighborhood structure conducive to walking to work, neighbors keeping an eye on kids, and healthy social interaction.
He includes separate social halls for younger and older members of the neighborhood. "I don't know if that's good sociology, but that's what they wanted," he says.
Duany also worked on how the main boulevard through town might look as it fills in. Currently, Palm Drive is loosely built up with gas stations, a food mart, a well-fenced motel, and fast food outlets.
But this realm of cinder block and sheet metal, says Duany, "at its best was like Key West," with its subtropical, clapboard-and-veranda, old Florida style. From talking to local elected officials, owners, and residents, he says, he gleaned that Florida City wants to look like Key West again.
The town also has what Duany says is a virtually untapped river of wealth running through it. Every year, 1.3 million tourists drive down Palm Drive into the Everglades National Park. Another half million turn left toward the Atlantic for Biscayne National Park. Still another 6 million tourists pass through heading south to the Keys.
"All in spending mode," he says of the tourists. "We want to hijack some of that traffic."
Close by Florida City in the larger, wealthier town of Homestead, the James Rouse-backed Enterprise Foundation is sponsoring a separate design in the same spirit as Duany's.
The design of a commercial "Pioneer Quarter" seeks to create a stronger, more attractive sense of place and a civic center by starting with existing buildings that are intact or salvageable, then designing "in-fill" buildings and creating new street patterns.
Homestead faces either the closing or substantial downsizing of an Air Force base that employed nearly a third of the population. Nevertheless, the thrust of the design work is to "make the city better than it was before," says Ed West of the Enterprise Foundation.
Further north, in the unincorporated suburban expanse of south Dade, architect Suzanne Martinson is working to convert Caribbean Elementary School, which will be razed and rebuilt, into the main civic building in an ethnically mixed, working-class neighborhood of stucco bungalows.
Ms. Martinson seeks to use the social areas of the school to "enliven" and "engage" the neighborhood. The school cafeteria becomes a grand building open to other uses after school hours, including as a hurricane shelter. It fronts onto a public green where an apartment building now sits that has been taken over by a federal lending agency. The library also is open to the neighborhood.
These plans already need to change, because the federal agency has decided it wants to salvage the apartment building. And neighbors will shift it in other ways. Leaders of the local homeowners' association reacted against the design until they gradually assumed control of it. Now they invite Martinson and her fellow architects to their meetings.
The Dade County School Board is already committed to spending $7.3 million to rebuild the school, and board members are eager to see neighborhood adults drawn into the school with social services from adult education to prenatal care offered in the school building.
"This is going to happen," says Martinson, estimating it will take about three years. "In my experience with the bureaucracy, the one who's going to get things rolling is the one who hangs on the longest."
She adds: "The hurricane was a bad thing, but it really brought this neighborhood together."
Down in Florida City, Hoskins notes that an "incredible amount" of houses will be built here. Pointing out the front door to young men hanging out, he says he hopes they will be more than just spectators at all the construction.
Referring to all the volunteers and free advisers, he says: "We want them to help us get the money and help us do it. We don't want them to come down, get the money, and do it for us."