Storm Warnings

Like Hiroshima, they said, and it was: Hurricane Andrew, the most costly storm in U.S. history, had turned south Dade County into a zone of ruination that stretched on for miles and miles. Find the neighborhood and you couldn't find the street. Find the street and you couldn't find the house. Find the house and all you saw was debris. There was no water, no electricity, no phones only the stench of rotting garbage and, here and there, spray-painted signs that showed at least some homeowners were hanging on. MANNED AND ARMED, these graffiti said. YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT.

Into this vale of desolation last week marched one of the more remarkable relief forces of modern times-a composite corps of army, navy, air force and Marine personnel, not to mention the Red Cross, the National Guard, hundreds of federal bureaucrats and thousands of well-meaning civilian volunteers from all over the United States. George Bush went on national television to promise a level of disaster aid whose final cost, at 100 percent federal reimbursement, no one could estimate with precision. Jack Kemp, Bush's secretary of housing and urban development, showed up in shirt sleeves to praise Dade County's pluck. So did Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, Marilyn Quayle and Transportation Secretary Andrew H. Card, the administration's newly designated Master of Disaster. Need a hot meal? Want a shower? Got diarrhea? There was, finally, a joint federal, state and local response-and it was, for the most part, reasonably well coordinated.

This outpouring of humanitarian assistance seemed to blunt the finger-pointing and recrimination that marked the first four days of Andrew's aftermath. State and local officials who had bitterly criticized the Bush administration's lack of a prompt response now hummed with praise for the gargantuan federal effort, and The Miami Herald applauded Bush's speech with a "Thanks, Mr. President" editorial. Still, with up to $20 billion in public- and private-property losses, an estimated 250,000 people homeless and 86,000 South Floridians suddenly out of work, the unmet needs were enormous. Full recovery for the area will almost certainly take years-and as the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Hurricane Camille in 1969, Andrew provided the nation with a vivid test of its readiness for any large-scale natural disaster.

By the weekend the multipronged relief effort seemed to be running well. The federal task force, headquartered next to Miami International Airport, was dominated by nearly 19,000 uniformed men and women directed by army Lt. Gen. Samuel Ebbesen. In south Dade, the military helped provide security against looters, scoured the ravaged countryside for injured people and began the massive job of cleaning up. It created an AM radio station, Radio Recovery, and handed out thousands of free transistor radios to help residents find assistance. Its most visible achievement was the creation of what will eventually be 12 tent cities with room for 36,000 people, complete with Porta Potties, hot and cold running water and entertainment for kids. Astonishingly, only a few hundred people showed up-which prompted local officials to begin a block-by-block campaign to coax stubborn survivors out of their damaged homes.

With up to 90,000 homes damaged or destroyed, rebuilding is a task that will take years to complete. Bush gave the local economy a much-needed boost by announcing that Homestead Air Force Base, which employs some 5,000 residents, will be completely rebuilt. Meanwhile, residents are eligible for up to $11,500 in federal grants for immediate necessities, and many homeowners will get up to $10,000 more to make their houses secure and livable. FEMA, the much-criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency, set up 18 neighborhood centers in the disaster zone, and some 1,500 claims adjusters from private insurance carriers were on the scene. Industry spokesmen estimated insurance payouts at $7.3 billion in Florida. To homeowners, however, the storm raised unsettling questions about prevailing construction standards. Current state codes dictate that homes in coastal area must withstand a 120-mph wind-- but even if homeowners understand construction techniques (and few do), Andrew showed the limits of the rule. "There's no such thing as a hurricane-proof home," said one expert, Sid Jordan of Houston's Brown & Root, the nation's third largest construction firm. "Houses aren't designed for 165-mph winds. It becomes cost-prohibitive.

The silver lining was that the total of human casualties was remarkably low. Countywide, only 14 people died as a direct result of the hurricane, and 18 more fatalities were attributed to storm-related causes such as heart attacks. There was no explosion of medical emergencies: although thousands of patients were evacuated and routine medical services were evacuated and routine medical services were disrupted, 21 of 27 hospitals in Dade County remained in business and Jackson Memorial Hospital, the county's primary medical center, reported no great increase in trauma cases. There was no sign of a public-health emergency, either: experts at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said the risk of typhoid, cholera and other contagious diseases was small. All in all, this minimal casualty list suggests the impact of two decisive factors: the National Hurricane Center's ability to provide ample early warning of approaching storms, and the overwhelming success of the voluntary evacuation from Andrew's path.

The real lesson of this hurricane, then, is that without such early warning, any large-scale future disaster is likely to cause much higher human loss-and to create intense pressure on the state and federal governments to respond. Consider the scenario for a major earthquake in a heavily populated area: if politicians waste four days dithering over the right level of emergency response, as they did this time, the casualty count could be enormous. Public outrage would be enormous, too.

These concerns have led some critics to urge large changes at the federal level. One target is FEMA, which in truth has never been much more than a coordinating agency, and which lacks the clout to direct a large-scale relief effort such as the one in south Florida. A new federal "disaster czar," these critics say, could have the power to cut through the red tape and order the military and other federal agencies into action. The "czar" could also improve coordination between Washington and state and local governments, which will surely retain responsibility for managing all but the worst disasters. Few who saw Andrew's devastating impact on south Florida would disagree that some change is necessary and no one can rightly claim the nation has not been warned.