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A City Leveled By Hurricane Andrew Rebuilds, Again

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Twenty years ago, Homestead, Fla., was in the eye of what was then the worst storm to hit the United States.

Fifteen people died directly from Hurricane Andrew and a few dozen more died from injuries later. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. Andrew's 165-mile-per-hour winds took out nearly every building in Homestead, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Families spent hours in lines to get water and ice.

National Guard troops handed out bags of ice but limited how much each family could get.

There was no electricity for weeks. No hot meals. No phones. And few places that were livable.

"The amazing thing about driving through the city of Homestead is that there's not anywhere that you can look where there wasn't pure destruction and everything had to be rebuilt," says Lynda Bell, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner and former mayor of Homestead. "We were all in the same boat, all the businesses, the homeowners." Touring an area just off Highway 1, she notes empty swaths of land. "Those were trailer parks and those of course never came back."

Homestead was built by railroad workers who extended the tracks from Miami through the Florida Keys. When Andrew hit, the population was about 30,000. The city lost about a third of its residents before it began to rebound. By 2007, it was the fastest-growing city in Florida amid a real estate boom.

The farm fields here were relatively cheap. Developers who had run out of property around Miami began gobbling up land.

"Most of the stuff that was built in 2004, 2005, 2006 was the stuff that there was no real control over it, there was no management over it," says Larry Roth, with the Keyes real estate company.

Today, 60,000 residents live in Homestead, but there's been a downside: When the recession hit and the housing market collapsed, it left foreclosures and the skeletons of neighborhoods.

"Actually, you can see we didn't have to travel very far to find this vacant lot that was at one point prepared for a single family, I would guess, out here," says Roth as he points to where foundations have been poured but the builder left town. "The electrical boxes are all in, fire hydrants are all in, so that tells me water and sewer and here and here it sits barren, uncut."

By this summer, RealtyTrac reported that 1 in 18 houses in Homestead was either bank owned or in foreclosure. Still, other parts of the city are growing, with new shopping centers, big-box stores, a hospital and, lighted up in the distance, the shimmering Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The growth is in stark contrast to a decade ago when Homestead was struggling and nearly bankrupt. The federal government all but closed the nearby Air Force base. The tax base was dwindling.

"We've truly been through a lot. I mean, we almost lost our city. We almost lost all the people," says Judy Waldman, a city councilwoman and real estate agent. She says even with all the housing problems, the development saved the town.

"The growth gave us life again. We had nothing. We didn't have a movie theater. We didn't have a hotel. We didn't have anything. And then all of a sudden the world — they discovered us. They started building houses and now our city is amazing," Waldman says.

Downtown Homestead is also coming back. Palm trees line Krome Avenue. The Seminole Theater built for silent movies in the 1920s is being renovated.

A Mexican restaurant, Casita Tejas, is one of the businesses that reopened.

"My dad always taught us to work hard, be honest and don't give up," says owner Cesar Berrones. His father was a migrant worker. He says it was months before this area got electricity and water. A couple of years after the hurricane, Berrones moved across the street where he now owns the building.

"We started doing business and we never looked back," he says.

Before Andrew, Homestead was more like a small town, but Berrones says the character of the city has changed.

"It's all new people, which is good for business. It's good for business, it's grown, but the old friends have gone. It's different," he says.

New and stronger building codes are now in place here and across Florida. Some who live in Homestead complain about the traffic; others, about crime.

When people who lived through Hurricane Andrew talk about it now, they're mostly grateful that their families and the city survived.

"Homestead was built with this pioneer spirit and that has not gone away, and that pioneer spirit is in a lot of people in this town," says Bell, the former mayor.

This city near the Florida Everglades that many thought would never recover will celebrate its centennial next year.

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