At last the disaster is dawning on America: Ten days after Hurricane Andrew struck, relief is still trying to catch up with chaos in Florida. Patrick Cockburn reports from Homestead

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The Independent Online
DOGS in Homestead were early casualties of Hurricane Andrew. Venturing out on the day after the hurricane, they found familiar houses and gardens destroyed. Worse, as families went to stay with relatives who still had a room intact, the dogs found their home territory invaded by strange pets.

In many cases, the dogs, unclear why their lives had been so dislocated, attacked the intruders, inflicting serious wounds.

By last week enough vets had moved into Homestead, Florida City, Cutler Ridge and other wrecked towns in the southern suburbs of Miami to cope with disorientated pets. Their owners too were being deluged with assistance. In what had been the main street of Homestead, signs had sprouted advertising the presence of government agencies, charities and insurance companies ready to provide aid and comfort.

But for all the largesse now being distributed, there is a sense of chaos about the relief effort 10 days after the hurricane struck. For instance, dotted around Homestead are fields filled with brightly coloured clothes, donated soon after the disaster. Few of the old jeans, children's cardigans and wool dresses were suitable for the soggy Florida heat, and many garments are now dissolving into mush, repeatedly soaked by rain.

At a military encampment at Harris Field in Homestead, Angel Rodriguez, a former Marine from Miami in charge of relief, said: 'They should have put the Red Cross or somebody who knew what they were doing in charge from the start, so you wouldn't have the National Guard, city officials and the army passing the buck to each other.'

He said proudly that the army had erected 125 tents, each accommodating 30 camp beds, but added that people were refusing to move into the camp. Instead they were staying in the remains of their houses, protecting their furniture. 'Their houses have been condemned as unfit for human habitation, but they believe that as soon as they move out, they will lose whatever possessions they have left. We may have to use the National Guard to get them out.'

The other reason people are refusing to move out is that they are waiting for the insurance loss adjusters to assess the damage, so they can get their claims paid. Almost every house in the better-built suburbs has the name of its insurance company - All State, Prudential, Utah Fire and Flood - painted in enormous letters on an outside wall. A visiting journalist is greeted with particular warmth because home-owners believe he represents their insurer.

But the migrant workers, who picked limes and avocados, seldom had any insurance. Instead they depend on the federal government and especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the universally maligned government organisation in charge of relief after disasters. At first the 300 Fema officials said to be in the area were difficult to find. Then, in a migrant workers' camp beside the turnpike road, two volunteers working for the agency were sitting at a table helping Mexican farm labourers fill in a five-page yellow form requesting aid.

Raymond Kasey, a Fema volunteer normally in charge of railway safety in Washington, said: 'What we really need here is an armoured car full of money to give to people.' In fact, the workers in the camp had not fared badly in the hurricane and had even benefited marginally from the discovery by the outside world that they existed. In one two-room house, Minerva, an 18-year-old Mexican, pointed to an enormous heap of tins rising halfway to the ceiling in the living-room.

Minerva's house was still intact because it was made out of concrete blocks, though the wind had wrapped two cars and a lorry around each other outside. But most of the houses in south Dade County where the hurricane struck were made out of plywood or hardboard, explaining why they collapsed so easily and why so few people, perhaps only 50 in Florida and Louisiana combined, were killed. The flimsiness of the roofs was such that even when they were blown in, they did not crush people cowering underneath.

Most of the 87,000 houses hit by the hurricane can be repaired if their owners stay in them, but not if they comply with the army's demand that they move into camps, each being allowed to bring only three suitcases. The military would have done better to erect a tent on each lawn, but by last week they were visibly responding to frantic efforts by the White House to overcome the accusation that it had reacted tardily to the disaster.

President George Bush visited Florida within hours of the hurricane, but only went as far as Cutler Ridge, north of the main area of devastation. Probably he did not realise the extent of the disaster. In the event, his arrival and failure to do anything exacerbated damage to his re-election campaign. 'Was it only for a photo-op before the election?' asked a letter in the Miami Herald. In any case, governments seldom do well out of disasters, being accused either of meanness or profligacy.

By the end of last week Mr Bush had succeeded in being accused of both, first by failing to do anything and then, on his second visit, promising to rebuild Homestead air force base, long threatened with closure, at a cost of dollars 500m. It is a measure of the excellent press relations enjoyed by James Baker, former secretary of state and new White House chief of staff, that he was applauded for, by one account, 'virtually commandeering' the presidential plane to go to Florida in the first hours after the hurricane, but not blamed for the subsequent delays in dispatching aid.

The US media were curiously slow to realise that Hurricane Andrew was, in terms of damage, the worst disaster ever to hit the US. Insured cost will be dollars 7.3bn (pounds 3.66bn), compared with dollars 5.1bn (in current dollars) for the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. But because television exaggerates natural disasters, by focusing on the highest wave and the most smashed-up house, even the hour-by-hour coverage of Andrew failed to impress on viewers the extent of the damage.

Hurricanes are common in the states along America's Caribbean and South Atlantic coasts, and this led to Andrew being underestimated. Five days after the hurricane, Time magazine debated whether or not to drop its cover story on Africa and replace it with the home-grown disaster. According to one staffer, Time divides natural disasters into the expected and unexpected, and since Andrew had, in a sense, been expected, it was deemed not to qualify for the cover.

The mannered style of some American print journalism also obscured what happened, pseudo-melodrama masking real drama. Catherine Manegold, writing from Homestead on the front page of the New York Times on 30 August, opens by saying: 'It was the trees that so many people spoke of.' In her second paragraph she relates how people in Homestead stopped in mid-conversation and 'remarked on a pine tree that had grown with them, an acacia that was a benchmark for their lives, a towering mangrove that was a testament to their own struggles, achievements and now loss'.

(Photograph omitted)