On The Ground At Ground Zero

Viewed from the air, the destruction in south Dade County looks like a fairground the day after a raucous rock concert. Trailer parks and transmission towers lie crushed, as if trampled by a crowd. Huge sheets of roofing metal are wadded up like tinfoil or wrapped around trees. Then comes a swarm of locusts-helicopters hovering above and military Humvees scuttling below-to help with the formidable task of rebuilding.

Aboard one chopper is Capt. Ellery Gray, a doctor who was appointed Florida's "public-health czar" in the wake of Hurricane Andrew's terrible romp. An emergency-response planner with the public-health service, Gray has helped lead relief efforts from Sudan to Armenia. His current assignment is to coordinate military, federal and local agencies aiding in cleanup, temporary housing and medical facilities. This morning, the destination is the Everglades Labor Camp, a poor and remote community of migrant workers flattened by the storm. Everything looks a lot worse on the ground. A well intentioned private company bulldozed a wrecked mobilehome community, pushing everything--trailer parts, personal belongings, even cars -into mini-mountains of debris up to 20 feet high,

Trash is just one headache. The few houses still standing shelter up to 30 people each; most people are staying away from the military tents, at least for now. Medical problems abound-from cases of infant diarrhea and heat rash to puncture wounds and animal bites. (Incredibly, baboons are still roaming the nearby fields, escapees from a primate breeding facility flattened by Andrew.) Thanks to the high-tech mobile surgical van flown in on a C-5 transport plane by the Spokane Veterans Administration, the camp's 500-some residents can receive treatment for their ailments. A Spanish-speaking boy also gets help fixing his bicycle from a passing soldier. These are curious cultural encounters: many migrant laborers here are illegal aliens who would never choose to brush up against U.S. officialdom. "We're not distinguishing between legal or illegal-and we keep the border patrol out," says Capt. Shawn Marcotte of the 478th special-operations/ civil-affairs unit. "Residents are very receptive to the green uniform, but not to law enforcement people."

Another clinic strained beyond capacity greets Gray at south Dade's Doris Ison Community Center in Homestead. Medics rush past with a young man whose left leg is oozing blood from a chain-saw accident. A disoriented middle-aged woman complains of losing her diabetes medicine in the hurricane. "My house was totaled; the roof is gone," she says, brandishing a plastic trash bag crammed with clothes. "I went from middle class to homeless overnight." Brodes Hartley, the community center's CEO, shares his anxiety with Gray about what will happen once the Public Health Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) pulls out. Will he be able to count on more doctors, nurses, cardiac monitors and wheelchairs? "We won't leave you high and dry," Gray reassures him, before prodding gently, " I don't mean to push you too much, but when can you have the equipment list ready.?"

The list can't come soon enough. As Gray tries to leave the clinic, a chopper arrives to evacuate a woman with a suspected ectopic pregnancy, Trouble is, the pilot has just been radioed to pick up a shooting victim and has to take off. Moments later, an ambulance arrives to drop off a middle-aged woman from Pennsylvania who collapsed with heat exhaustion-and, after a hasty exchange with hospital officials, to take the pregnant woman to a nearby hospital. Gray helps to close the ambulance doors.

In West Perrine, a hardscrabble community with a large Latino population, Gray checks out the military portable kitchens that last saw duty in Kuwait. Outside a collection center giving out donated clothing, an old black woman in a grubby T shirt complains about the roving packs of hungry dogs that prowl at night. "My kids' homes are completely destroyed," she says. "And I'm lookin' after 32 grandchildren." A DMAT doctor from New Mexico asks Gray about his tour of duty; normally a replacement team arrives within a week. "Seven days may have worked with a small tornado," says Gray. "But now everyone should plan to stay longer." For much of south Dade, recovery will be gauged not by days but by years.