HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Hurricane Andrew roared through Florida and in a few terrible hours taught hundreds of thousands of people how tenuous and how fragile is their hold on this subtropical spit of land.
Andrew's 164-mph blasts did not discriminate between the rusty trailers in the migrant camps near Florida City, the old pine bungalows in Perrine or the spanking new ranch homes in south Kendall with Mercedes in the driveway.
Andrew whomped them all and the inhabitants were equally powerless to stop the screaming winds.
'It was the worst feeling you could have because you were so helpless. There's nothing you can do. There was nothing we could do,' said Gina Freedman, who huddled under a mattress with relatives as the winds blew out the windows, mangled the furniture and tore part of the roof off her home in the Briarwood subdivison of South Dade.
When the howling winds finally died and the roads were cleared of fallen trees and twisted wires, the scale of the carnage became apparent.
The destruction went on and on and on, through south Kendall, Cutler Ridge, Goulds, Princeton, Richmond Heights, Perrine, Naranja, Leisure City, Homestead, the Redlands, Florida City, and through the swampland trailer camps without names.
For miles and miles on either side of Highway U.S. 1, there was nothing intact, nothing whole, nothing standing.
'Unbelievable, numbing,' said Judy Allor, digging through the ruins at the DeSoto Trailer Park, just east of Homestead, where an elderly relative had lived.
'The buildings are stripped skeletons,' said a soldier standing guard at Homestead Air Force Base's west gate.
'The devastation is just incredible. There's not a thing left out there,' said Laura Schwartz, who spent the night with friends at farm research center near the Redlands.
'It's solid debris, 6 feet deep,' said Andy Eans, a Monroe County emergency manager who helped search the Homestead rubble for bodies.
'We saw the TV pictures. They just don't do it justice. You can't get 20-mile swaths in a TV picture,' said Tom Scully, a White House staff worker who flew down with the Army.
'We'll just have to bulldoze the place and start over,' said Gary Ketchum, a lawn maintenance worker who huddled in the shower with a roommate and prayed to live as the storm shredded his apartment in the wooden Turf Management building in Perrine.
At Red Cross shelters, in anguished conversations overheard at telephone booths, in desperate pleas over the airwaves, the cries were the same.
'We have nothing and nowhere to go.'
'We're basically homeless.'
'What are we going to do?'
It did not matter what they had before. It did not matter whether they had heeded the warnings and boarded up and stored food and water as the storm approached.
It was all gone. The stockpiles were blown away, the banks and grocery stores were demolished or closed. Those who had bank accounts couldn't get to them. Those who had cash couldn't spend it.
Instantly, Andrew's victims were reduced to scrounging, begging, stealing what little was left and fighting each other to meet the most basic human needs.
National Guardsmen had to calm the clawing crowds when trucks pulled up with precious deliveries of water.
'People were ready to take the guards'guns away from them to get the water. That's how desperate it was,' said Alex Muxo, Homestead's city manager.
'There are people out there that are starving. We're talking here about survival. There's no community that could plan for this kind of disaster. We're talking about an area that's been totally devastated... the worst disaster the country has seen.'
Those the storm had spared were incredibly grateful. They felt guilty for complaining about minor inconveniences, about the lack of electricity and running water when others were dead, injured or living in devastated shells that had been their homes.
They knew that it was sheer chance, nothing they could control or earn that had spared them.
'One degree (latitude) and we would have got it all,' said Robert Herman, who lives in the Upper Keys, which escaped the brunt of the storm. 'We were blessed. We didn't dodge a bullet, we dodged an atomic bomb.'
From all over, help began to arrive by the truckload: so many trucks and volunteers the southbound roads were jammed, so much food and water the warehouses were full, the distribution centers were clogged. Chaos reigned.
The Army came. The convoys came with backhoes, cherry pickers, electricians, paramedics, field hospitals, generators and tents.
There were still cries of 'What about us?' 'Where the hell is the cavalry?' and 'What took so long?' But there were also thank-yous, and smiles and full bellies.
Five days after Andrew struck, there also was hope, and talk of rebuilding, and determination not to give in, not to be beaten by the storm.
And there was recognition that it will take a long time to build it back, and that it will not be easy.
'This is not something that we can fix in a few months,' Muxo said. 'This is going to be a two-year process, we're talking in terms of years.'