HOMESTEAD -- The havoc wreaked by Hurricane Andrew here two decades ago still serves as a warning about the devastation even a slow tropical storm season can bring.
Homestead was ground zero when Andrew plowed ashore in late August 1992, surprising South Florida residents who hadn't experienced a major hurricane landfall in a quarter-century and forecasters who hadn't anticipated the storm's rapid intensification to Category 5 strength.
The city has not only grown back from the splinters Andrew left behind, it has doubled in size into a demographically different community than the one that suffered the storm's impact.
Even with an influx of new residents who never experienced the Andrew cleanup and recovery, city officials say the agricultural community southwest of Miami is better prepared for future hurricanes.
Homestead isn't the post-Andrew city anymore, says Mayor Steven Bateman.
"I don't want that title. I think we've outgrown that five years ago," Bateman says.
"We've doubled in size, we are surviving the downturn in the economy, our second big hotel is getting ready to open, and a trolley runs six days a week," Bateman continues boasting. "We're moving forward."
According to U.S. Census figures, more than 26,800 people called Homestead home in 1990. Though roughly 9,000 people fled the city in Andrew's aftermath, by 2010 it was clear that the Andrew recovery phase was long over.
More than 60,500 people were tallied in the city in 2010, and 62.9 percent identified themselves as Hispanic -- a dramatic increase from the 35.2 percent who identified as Hispanic in the years just before Andrew struck. The percentage of people working in farming dropped as the population grew, and by 2010 the largest percentage of the employed labor force worked in the education and health-care fields.
When Andrew made landfall early in the morning on Aug. 24, 1992, the storm destroyed more than 80 percent of Homestead's houses, including all but a handful of the city's mobile homes. Homestead Air Force Base, then the community's economic and civic core, was wiped out.
Photographs from Andrew's aftermath show wooden boards driven through the trunks of palm trees, ambulances flipped upside down in piles and homes missing whole roofs and walls. Dozens in Florida died, up to a quarter-million people were left homeless and with $30 billion in damages, Andrew was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We had a party that night, as was typical prior to Andrew," says Steve Garrison, who in 1992 had recently retired as the police chief of a neighboring municipality to concentrate on his plant nursery in Homestead. "People would put masking tape on their windows or plywood and felt like they were fairly well protected. That turned out to be nothing but a joke."
After his party guests had gone home, Garrison and his family were awoken by the sound of the roof peeling off their house. The family huddled in a closet as Garrison held a mattress against the slatted doors.
"I just felt like such a jerk for having exposed my wife and children to the devastation of the hurricane," Garrison recalled. Now he knows better, he says. "The RV and I are gone at the first hint of a hurricane."
The Insurance Institute for Business & Homes Safety now ranks Florida highest among hurricane-prone states for enforcing a stringent building code, which was developed after Andrew. The code's overhaul gives city officials confidence that even with more than double the number of housing units in city limits than there were 20 years ago, Homestead is better able to withstand a hit from another major hurricane.
"I think our Homestead is well-prepared. Our building code is so ready -- I don't want to see it tested, but I think it's going to stand strong," Bateman says.
Affordable land drove Homestead's construction boom in 2004 and 2005, even though those were two of the most destructive and busiest hurricane seasons on record, Bateman says. Agriculture is still a major business around Homestead, even with hundreds of acres former farmland now occupied by single-family homes, Bateman says. The air force base never regained its former size. It is now a reserve base that has 250 full-time military and 300 civilian employees, compared to 6,000 military and 2,000 civilian employees in 1992.
The city repeatedly reaches out to residents old and new with bilingual hurricane preparedness guides, inserts in utility bills and community police events to reinforce the idea that evacuation orders and storm preparation should be taken seriously, says Ed Bowe, Homestead's emergency management coordinator.
Bowe was a Homestead police officer when Andrew struck, finding his way back to work the morning after landfall even though all the street signs and landmarks had been blown away. He has a stern warning for anyone who wouldn't heed an evacuation order ahead of a major hurricane:
"We'd give you a black marker and ask you to identify on your arm somewhere your Social Security number," he says. "And they say, 'Why? What would you need that for?' Well, this way, afterwards, we'll be able to identify who you are, and that sort brings it home for them. 'Oh, this is serious, huh?' Yes, this is serious, we wouldn't be telling you otherwise."
Still, Homestead's population and construction growth worry some disaster experts. Homestead lies between Miami and the Florida Keys, and road access remains limited and vulnerable to traffic jams.
According to the National Hurricane Center, 55,000 people left the Keys ahead of Andrew, and evacuations were ordered for 517,000 people in what was then Dade County.
Roughly 2.5 million people live in Miami-Dade County now, and there's about 73,000 people living in Keys, according to Census figures. If a large portion of all those people were ordered to evacuate, it's unclear how quickly they would be able to drive to safety, says Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University expert on hurricane impacts in coastal areas.
Road and shelter access are just two vulnerabilities South Florida still has after Andrew, Leatherman says.
"We're low-lying, we have a dense population, we've got a tremendous amount of high-value real estate here," Leatherman says. "All that makes us very, very prone."