Andrew cost more than Kuwait's war: Many years reporting disasters could not prepare Robert Block for the damage the hurricane wrought in his home town

IT IS almost a week since Hurricane Andrew blew in from across the Atlantic, smashing the houses of 75,000 families. Andrew flattened my home town of south- west Miami, Dade County, Florida - the biggest, costliest natural-disaster area in the history of the United States.

The 40 mile-long, 15 mile-wide stretch of urban sprawl from Miami south to Florida City was last Monday transformed into a trail of devastation and tears.

Streets I cruised in a Volkswagen as a teenager were turned into obstacle courses of downed electricity pylons, uprooted trees and wrecked caravans. Friends who spent the storm huddled in prayer in bathrooms or cupboards had their houses ripped apart by 165mph gusts of wind; the remains look like film-stage sets. Caravan homes were crumpled into wads of sheet metal, while complete neighbourhoods have been reduced to rain-soaked piles of kindling wood and plaster.

The preliminary estimate of damage is dollars 20bn ( pounds 10bn), the same amount Kuwait had to pay the allies for the Gulf war, and that figure is constantly being revised upwards as repair crews and insurance agents venture further into 'the zone', producing revelations of even greater devastation.

Andrew killed at least 13 people in south Florida. One out of every 10 residents of Dade County, 250,000 men, women and children, young and old, rich and poor, are homeless.

Sources of community pride such as the Metro Zoo - one of the country's best - have been levelled and some of the animals killed. 'Your home town doesn't exist any more,' my childhood friend Chris Heagan, who lost his own home in the storm, told me.

None of my years as a foreign correspondent reporting on natural and man-made disasters in far- away corners of the globe prepared me for Hurricane Andrew and the day that I would see a familiar place made unrecognisable by the forces of nature. That happens to other places, not to my home town, not to my old neighbourhood.

No matter how close I got to Afghans or Palestinians, no matter how much I felt for the plight of El Salvador or Sri Lanka, the fact that I was a foreigner who would eventually leave insulated me from the fury and pain that raged all around. They were not my reality. When I first laid eyes on the rubble of neighbourhoods where I used to play as a child, I wished I could somehow fabricate that same remoteness.

The house in the Kendall suburb where I spent my adolescence and where my mother died of cancer 15 years ago lost part of its roof, like so many others in the area. Rain damage made the place smell like a cross between wet sheep and mildew. The people who live there now were not around when I drove down from Fort Lauderdale, where I sat out the hurricane in relative safety.

Although Fort Lauderdale lies only 30 miles north of Miami, it might as well be on another planet. Like all points north of the city, Fort Lauderdale was largely spared, save for uprooted trees and some downed power lines. My flat survived with electric and water supplies intact.

This left the impression early on Monday that south Florida weathered the hurricane better than had been expected. Hours passed before the full extent of the damage became clear, because those worst hit were unable or too dumbstruck to communicate or move. Each day since has brought more news of destruction.

In a few hours, south Florida and Dade County in particular were changed for ever. 'Dade will never be the same again,' the county manager, Joaquin Avino, said. It is no exaggeration.

The extent of the devastation is almost unfathomable. The scene is more reminiscent of a war zone than of south Florida, especially now that President George Bush has sent in thousands of US troops to help local authorities cope with the disaster, the scale of which strained emergency plans to near breaking-point. This has led to bitter feuding among the local, state and federal governments and the myriad agencies that share responsibility for the haphazard and often confused relief effort.

It may take weeks, possibly months, before any sense of normality will return. In the meantime a quarter of a million people, some of them friends and family, are struggling to survive without water and electricity, and in some cases without money, food or a roof over their heads. 'Sometimes people stop trying to fix things and just sit on their front lawns and stare into space. There are moments when it really hits you,' said Matt Gilson, a Dade County school teacher and former university classmate.

Standing on what is left of the roof of Matt's house in the Richmond Heights suburb you can look east and see the beach eight miles away. Tall pines and voluminous banyan trees used to block that view. At night the vista is even more impressive: there is only blackness as far as the eye can see. Like thousands of others, Matt and his neighbours refuse to leave their homes and join the 40,000 people living in shelters. Unable to secure what is left of their possessions, they sit in the dark with loaded guns to ward off looters, often taking shifts sleeping.

Neighbourhoods devise passwords daily to avert accidents. 'Looters will be shot' signs are posted at the entrance to almost every neighbourhood in 'the zone'.

There have been few incidents of looting over the past week, however. Crime and confusion have marked this tragedy much less than altruism.

Neighbours who never so much as said hello to each other before 24 August are pitching in and trying to clear up the mess as a city best known for its diverse and divided communities pulls together. There is also a prevailing attitude of defiance.

'We will rebuild. It may take us years, but we'll do it. This is my home. This is the place where I live. This is my town,' said Kevin Church, Matt's housemate.

MIAMI (AP) - Badly needed supplies flowed to Florida's hurricane victims yesterday. President Bush said on Saturday he was making dollars 300m ( pounds 150m) available to speed delivery. The Pentagon said it would increase the number of federal troops to 19,500 and send navy ships with 2,000 tons of food and relief supplies.

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