09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
AMID THE CHAOS AND SUFFERING OF South Florida, it was a small yet inspiring drama. Setting their own losses aside, 100 dedicated men and women were working frantically to save the dazed and helpless animals roaming through the wreckage of Miami's devastated Metrozoo. For some of the more exotic creatures whose habitat was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, survival was a race against time. The three koalas lost their only source of food—a eucalyptus grove—and the roof of their airconditioned enclosure, leaving the delicate marsupials to suffer in dangerously high heat and humidity. "It was very important to get them to another facility immediately," says Ron McGill, Metrozoo's assistant curator and a driving force behind the zoo's restoration, which could take at least six months. "We called Busch Gardens in Tampa, the closest zoo that has koalas, but we had the problem of getting them there fast."
After he made a radio appeal, a private pilot came to the rescue. He got permission from the National Guard to have a runway cleared at the debris-littered Tamiami Airport, loaded the koalas into his small plane and flew them to their temporary new home. "You shouldn't have to wait for a natural catastrophe for these things to happen," says McGill. "But it shows that a lot of good will come of this."
In Andrew's aftermath, the hasty cleanup of Metrozoo has emerged as one of the brightest examples of public generosity in a disaster area beset by looting, food and water shortages and the misery of 250,000 people left homeless. With its soaring aviary and sleek monorail, Metrozoo had been a source of civic pride for Miamians. But despite preparations that included drastically trimming trees and sheltering all flamingos, storks and cranes in the zoo's concrete restrooms, Andrew would not be denied. Exhibit roofs peeled off while uprooted trees and trailers tore through the air like missiles, demolishing chain-link fences and freeing an antelope herd, a gibbon, a tapir, hundreds of birds and several 500-lb. Galápagos tortoises. "We had to get a forklift to put the tortoises back," says McGill.
Another casualty was the zoo's spectacular aviary, containing 320 birds of 80 different species. The 60-foot-high netting roof collapsed, crushing many of the birds and leaving others at the mercy of 150-m.p.h. winds. Fortunately, the rhino and giraffes—which surprisingly weathered the blast uninjured—stayed in their torn enclosures, probably because "they felt more secure in a familiar place," explains McGill. The animals that might have posed a threat to humans—lions, tigers, bears and gorillas—rode out Andrew's onslaught behind the steel grates and poured concrete of their night houses. The zoos fatality list was miraculously short: three antelope, an ostrich hit by fling debris, a small gibbon and many birds.
"When I first got here," says McGill, "I sat down and cried. I wondered if we would ever be able to rebuild." In the three days after the storm, because the zoo had no working phones, McGill's wife, Rita, fielded 422 calls at the couple's home in Kendall. Reacting to appeals, other zoos started sending specialized foods for the animals, veterinarians offered their services, and many people donated chain saws to cut fallen trees. Zoos also delivered meat for the big cats and fish for the birds. An hour after McGill appealed on TV for refrigeration help, a man lent the zoo two large refrigerated trucks. "We've gotten such an overwhelming response to our requests," McGill says. "I don't know it I got more emotional over the tragedy of the loss or over the outpouring of support." Still, he says, "while we all love animals, we need to take care of people first. I don't want anyone to bring us water if it takes away from a family that needs it."
McGill is optimistic about the animals' welfare, citing the story about the workers who came across a tiny miracle in a dry moat. There lay a baby yellow-backed duiker, a small, now motherless antelope born during the storm and still alive. They promptly dubbed it Andrew. "In the midst of the destruction, here was this new life," says McGill. "It was like a ray of hope. And we knew as long as we didn't lose hope, we'd be okay."
CINDY DAMPIER in Miami