Picking Up the Pieces
09/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT IS DAWN ON TUESDAY, AUG. 25. HURRICANE ANDREW swept through town 24 hours ago, and Alex Muxo, 37, is trying to save what's left. In the faint light of an emergency generator, Muxo is rummaging through the wreckage of the Homestead, Fla., City Hall searching for a working walkie-talkie. Nearly all the phones are down, and he needs to know how quickly the town's power plant can get back on line. Incongruous on a debris-strewn City Council table is a shiny nameplate with his title: CITY MANAGER. The city he manages is mostly gone. The day before, at 6 A.M., Andrew and its 160-m.p.h. winds roared ashore just nine miles to the east. Homestead was ground zero. "Our town is history," says Muxo. "I don't think people realized how devastated we were. I think they're just realizing how bad it is here.
A stunned-looking man walks into the office. "You-all have a pay phone that's working?" Muxo shakes his head and asks, "Who do you need to call?" "My family," says the man, his voice cracking, "to tell them we're still alive." Muxo directs him to one of two functioning office telephones. "I'll call collect," the man promises. "I won't slick you with the bill." "Thai's OK," Muxo says softly.
Muxo is about to start his toughest, most emotionally wrenching day on the job since being appointed 12 years ago. "I'm just numb," he says, "operating on adrenaline." Homestead, a blue-collar and farming community of 26,000, was one of the towns worst hit by the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. At least 19 people died, and damage in Florida and Louisiana is estimated at more than $20 billion. Muxo is working feverishly to restore the most basic services, like power, water and phones.
Another man enters City Hall, tears streaming down his face. "God, it's really horrible," he sobs. "It's really worse than anything I imagined." Muxo hugs the man, does what he can to comfort him. then gets back to work as the man stumbles out, still crying.
While guiding a Jeep through streets strewn with downed power lines, trees and wrecked trailers, Muxo describes the Homestead that existed just two days before. "That's the new bowling center," he says, pointing out a roofless, half-collapsed building. "It was a great addition to the town." Passing the gutted shell of an apartment complex, he shakes his head sadly. "We'll have to condemn all this," he says. Last year, Muxo helped persuade the Cleveland Indians to move their spring-training site from Arizona to Homestead's new state-of-the-art, $22 million sports complex. A newspaper headline, now on Muxo's wall, hailed his success by announcing MUXO GETS A HOME RUN. Now the facility is severely damaged—the loss is estimated al $10 million—but Muxo thinks it will be repaired by February, when the Indians were scheduled to arrive.
In Homestead alone, 20,000 people were left homeless—including waitress Mary Jane Morris, 35. She sought shelter in City Hall—with her husband, James, and their four children—after the family's $100,000 home was torn to shreds. As the house disintegrated around them, the frightened family had the eerie feeling the storm was trying to find and destroy them. "We went from room to room, and the roof kept flying off," she says. "It was like Popsicle sticks. Zach, 8 years old, kept screaming and screaming. "Mommy, we're going to die! We're going to die!' "
The Morrises plan to slay, at least for a while, with relatives in Fort Lauderdale. Mary Jane isn't so sure that rebuilding a life in Homestead will be possible. "The whole town is gone," she says sadly. "My job is flattened. My husband's job is flattened. What are we supposed to do here?" Yet James, 35, a house painter, is already looking ahead. "I need one day just to do nothing, he says. "Then I'll come back and start trying to fix things. You can't walk away from something you worked half your life for."
Back at City Hall, Gov. Lawton Chiles has arrived via motorcade. MUXO needs state aid as well as National Guard troops to coordinate rebel efforts and help fend off looters. "It looks like a bomb went off here," says Chiles with a frown, noting that the huge Homestead Air Force Base—nearly as important to the local economy as farming—is virtually destroyed. The Governor promises heavy equipment to clear the streets and says that a National Guard disaster-response unit is moving in as he speaks.
Next stop for Muxo is the Desoto Mobile Home Park, now a graveyard of ruined trailers. The stumps of concrete foundations dot the spaces where the homes once stood. Nearby, a canine patrol is conducting a grim search for dead or injured in the splintered wreckage. Ron, 62, and Rosemarie Fitzpatrick, 61, manage the park, which caters to senior citizens. They have set up a shelter in the complex's garage for six elderly residents, including one in a wheelchair. "It's terrible, but we're managing," says Rosemarie. "We're getting food."
The Fitzpatricks, though, were less successful holding off looters. "Ron threatened them, but they said, 'Go ahead, shoot us. You can't get all of us.' They just took what they wanted." One of the older tenants reports that the thieves have returned, loading trucks full of other people's properly in broad daylight. "We can't stop these people," Rosemarie says, putting a comforting arm around the woman.
In another mobile home park, a man sits inside an Air Stream trailer. He's unable to leave and find other shelter. "I'm too stove up to move," says Leon Harrell, 69. "My back is aching." Harrell had refused to evacuate and chose to ride out the storm with Troubles, his white poodle, on his lap. Andrew tore the trailer from its foundation and battered it for three hours. Harrell was sure he was going to die. The endless howling of the wind, he says, sounded like "the end of time."
After surveying the wreckage, Muxo hurries back to his office. Dozens of people have lined up at City Hall for the small amount of food and fresh water available there. One city employee shows up in tears. "I have nothing left," she cries. "My sister and I have a truck, and we're going to take what we can save and leave. We slept in the yard last night." Muxo learns that the woman has no money. "You take this," he says, pressing some cash into her hand and embracing her.
Through it all, Muxo has been too busy to assess the damage Andrew did to his own life. A divorced father with custody of his two young sons, he spent the hours leading up to the hurricane's landfall overseeing the city's evacuation. He spent the night of the storm in his office with his sons. "It sounded like a freight train coming through," he recalls. "You know, the way a plane or train sounds when they rev the engine up."
Tuesday morning he discovered that the engine of destruction had leveled the house he had moved into just 22 days before. "My kids were pretty devastated-all their stuff" was gone, baseball cards, everything," he says. "That may seem trivial, but when you're a 12-year-old who's been collecting since you were 6, it's everything."
By day's end, Muxo is exhausted—but not beaten. "I've seen this town grow, and it's really tough to see something you've worked for so hard lake such a blow," he says. "But I think we'll rebuild. It's going to take a while, but people will come back. Homestead will come back."
CINDY DAMPIER in Homestead