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Hurricane Rips South Florida, But Warnings Helped Save Lives

HURRICANE Andrew took only a few hours to rip across south Florida. But its effects will be felt here for weeks and months.

[At press time, Andrew was heading toward New Orleans with winds of 140 m.p.h., the Associated Press reported. More than 1.7 million people in Louisiana and Mississippi were asked or ordered to evacuate, and the storm warning extended across the Texas coast.]

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John Carrera moved to Florida from New York three years ago to buy his dream home in a southwest Miami neighborhood called Perrine. It was the first house he had ever bought. In the predawn fury of Monday's hurricane, he spent 45 minutes pushing a mattress against his shuddering front door.

The door held. The roof over his children's room did not. No injuries occurred, but Mr. Carrera complains bitterly about the cheap and perhaps illegal construction techniques used to build his house. It will take weeks to sort out the insurance claims - months, if he decides to sue the development and the city's building inspectors.

Nearby, Oswaldo and Diana Alfonso spent Hurricane Andrew in their bathroom. Huddled with them were four daughters, two relatives, and one puppy. In the first few minutes of the 140-mile-per-hour gale, most of the roof covering the bathroom blew off. For nearly four hours, the Alfonsos took refuge under a mattress. Mr. Alfonso and his brother- in-law held the bathroom door, trying to keep the wind out.

"There are no words to describe it," Alfonso says.

Now the house's insulation coats the inside walls and a child's tricycle like gray oatmeal. The carpeting is soaked. So much debris fills the master bedroom that the only recognizable piece of furniture is the waterbed.

Every other house in this subdivision has similar damage. It's as if a giant decided to stop at each dwelling, step on the tree, and grab a chunk of roof.

"It was something I experienced that I don't want to experience again," says Stephen Wongkee, a nearby resident.

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Hurricane Andrew, which killed at least 15 people, cut a powerful but relatively narrow swathe through south Florida. Storm warnings saved many lives. The worst destruction stretched south of Miami's downtown to Homestead, where an entire Air Force base was destroyed. Perrine suffered some of the most extensive damage on the eastern Florida coast.

Andrew then swept through Naples before regaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico.

The disaster has had its positive moments. Local radio talk shows became information lifelines for people with no telephone or television. One caller offered a place to stay for people left homeless by the storm. Another offered to move debris with his miniature front loader.

This subdivision of Perrine, called Estancia, is more united than before.

"I have a lot of neighbors I never talked to before," says Mr. Wongkee, who is one of the few blacks in the largely Hispanic subdivision. "But now we are speaking, sharing experiences, planning together."

Local neighbors have devised a plan to patrol the subdivision to discourage looters. A nearby strip mall, whose roof collapsed in the hurricane, already has been looted, residents say. One resident, Jose M. Gill, meets a reporter, then returns some minutes later packing a pistol.

THE destruction from Andrew will run into billions of dollars. [Some 34,000 people were in shelters yesterday morning, while 3 million were without power.] Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) quickly declared South Florida a disaster area Aug. 24. That afternoon, President Bush toured some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storm. He quickly signed a measure releasing emergency federal funds for the cleanup ahead.

If Andrew left thousands homeless, its impact on most south Florida residents was less dramatic. They saw felled trees, downed powerlines, electric outages, and the cutoff of running water. Florida Power and Light estimated the storm knocked out power to three quarters of Dade County. It could take weeks to restore.

Businesses closed. Residents intent on driving had to dodge fallen trees and utility poles and drive over power lines. Stop lights could be seen hanging only a few feet from the pavement. Miami intersections became potential hazards since most stop lights weren't working.

Since most service stations had no electric power to pump gas, cars lined up at the few stations which did.

"This is crazy!" exclaimed Nelson Martinez in the middle of one gas line. "All this inconvenience now without power! People take it for granted but the world revolves around it."

Minutes later the station ran out of gasoline. Mr. Martinez had to look elsewhere for the precious fuel.

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