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After Storming of Andrew, Kindness Is in Season

Christmas in southern Florida marked by giving parties, gifts to the needy, and waiting patiently for return to more normal life

EVEN the Grinch couldn't steal Christmas from southern Florida. Not this year.

Hurricane Andrew, which brought the worst of nature, has also brought out the best in its victims. This spirit still reigns four months after the 145-mile winds wrecked large sections of Miami, Homestead, and Florida City.

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Maria Garza is one of the receivers. "I never thought I would be so happy," she says, standing in a dusty trailer park holding a poinsettia plant and a cup of ice cream. "Sometimes I feel scared because I have gotten so much from everybody."

Ms. Garza and her migrant worker friends were given a Christmas party courtesy of Jim Ogden, a Miami restaurant owner. "This is the best Christmas present I could get," he says, leaning against a pole of the now-empty party tent - "to see those kids out here saying `Thank you, Santa!' ..."

He doesn't finish his sentence. He was Santa.

This delicate balance of giver and receiver is repeated again and again in this hurricane-mangled region, running from Miami southward to the beginning of the Florida Keys.

A few miles north of this migrant-labor camp, Annie Tasker and her fellow Brownies help their parents deliver bicycles and presents to the children of Florida City. "It's going to be like a hurricane Christmas," the second-grader says.

A hurricane Christmas?

"You are looking out the window and seeing hurricane damage when it's Christmas," she replies. Annie's home was so badly damaged that she and her parents live in a two-bedroom apartment while they wait for the contractor to rebuild their house. It probably won't be finished before spring, Annie's mother says.

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Many families in the Brownie troop are in the same straits. Yet here they are, unloading hundreds of donated bicycles to children less fortunate than themselves. Those children - black, Hispanic, and Caribbean - ooohhh and aaahhh as the shiny bikes come off the truck.

Melvin Smith, a father of four, wants to know what time the bikes will be passed out.

"It won't be a Christmas like they have been having," he says. "But at least there will be a Christmas for them."

Hurricane Andrew left behind some of the worst damage in United States' history. An estimated 200,000 people were pushed out of their homes. An estimated 85,000 homes in Dade County were destroyed or severely damaged.

FOUR months later, the debris has been picked up and the reconstruction is under way. But it will take months, even years, for this area to recover.

Despite the delays in reconstruction, southern Floridians have somehow maintained a sense of humor. One Christmas card making the rounds shows Santa and his reindeer cruising over damaged rooftops. In the caption, Santa says: "Rudolph, can you find a roof to land on?"

The immediate needs - food, water, and temporary shelter - largely have been met. Now, the needs have changed to blankets and sweaters and warmer clothing as the winter season sets in.

Under a faded yellow tent in Florida City, these relief efforts have been tempered a bit by the holiday season. A plastic Santa stands beside the donation table for hurricane relief. Behind plastic sheet walls, volunteers have been temporarily diverted from handing out clothing to assembling new bicycles donated by a group of lawyers and others.

"Our need is to take care of the kids," explains a volunteer who arrived here soon after the hurricane and has stayed ever since. The bicycles will be given to the children who have volunteered at the relief station.

The biggest change he has seen is in the volunteers themselves, he says. He points to several who have opened up and become much more willing to share since they arrived at the compound.

On the Saturday before Christmas, three airmen from the Homestead Air Force Base arrive and take up posts assembling bicycles. "It's no big deal, really," says Staff Sgt. Kenneth Ramey. "It's a pleasure doing stuff ... rather than sitting on base doing nothing."

One of the more recent volunteers, Charles Jones, is a former marine. He has spent the last few days boxing up mini boxes of cereal with a Matchbox car or a doll for needy children. Then, he helped deliver them.

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