What Went Wrong

The Big Blow started as a little pout of hot air in the summer sky over West Africa. It was only a tropical depression when the National Hurricane Center in Dade County, Fla., began watching it closely. Three days later, as it gathered strength 1,000 miles off the Leeward Islands, the NHC meteorologists named it Andrew. Seated at a blue desk surrounded by computers and weather monitors, Lixion Avila spent one midnight shift plotting the storm's path. At 3 a.m. he picked up a beige telephone and called his boss, Robert Sheets.

"Bob, I'm sorry to wake you up."

"That's OK."

"Bob, we have a hurricane."

Over the next two days, as Andrew huffed up to Category 3, then Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, Bob Sheets rallied his staff, battened down the center, went on the tube to warn Floridians. About 1 a.m. one night last week, the wind screamed like a siren, and the entire 12-floor center off Old Dixie Highway began to shudder. The air conditioner broke. The electricity went out. Someone turned on a gas generator to get the computers back up. About 5 a.m., the anemometer clocked a gust of 164 miles per hour. With a shriek of tearing metal, the center's radar unit, a spinning dish antenna inside a protective dome, blew off the roof-and disappeared into the maw of a Category 5 catastrophe.

Farther south, Tom McEvoy, a Coral Gables police officer, had taped the windows and pruned the trees of his Cutler Ridge house. With his daughter, Amanda, 6, his son Chris, 5, and his ex-wife, he decided to call Andrew's bluff. The wind woke them, drove them downstairs. The first window blew, showering the living room with glass. They fled from room to room, the windows exploding all around them. Finally, all four, with their Rottweiler and a German shepherd mix, jammed into the bathroom. Frozen with terror, the kids crying, they sat through the night while Andrew, roaring like a bulldozer, noisily dismantled the house. When the howling stopped, they gingerly peered out at Cutler Ridge. What they saw walloped McEvoy's mind: "It looked like an atomic bomb hit."

The stories from Andrew's ground zero summoned up a kind of terror the country had not felt since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Donna Beckham held her child in her arms, crooning softly, "Yes, baby, house broke," as she sifted the aluminum scraps that had been their trailer. "In two hours, I lost my house, my job and my dog," said her husband, Jerry. In the subdivision of Westbrook South, Chris Heagan had been crouched in a closet with his 9-month-old son, his wife and their 5-year-old daughter when five-foot chunks of metal began slicing by them. "You haven't lived through anything until you find a trailer flying into your house," he recalls. "There are no words to describe the fear."

The tag on the front bumper of Kate Hale's red Cutlass Calais said: BE HURRICANE PREPARED. As Andrew approached, the director of Dade County's Office of Emergency Management had said a prayer: "Please, God, if this one is ours, help us all to do the best job. Help people listen." She weathered the storm in a war room full of telephones connecting her to state, county, federal and private disaster-relief agencies. When the storm blew west over the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana, she called the State Division of Emergency Management in Tallahassee and said, "Send us everything you've got." Then she went out to the airport when President George Bush, Gov. Lawton Chiles and Wallace Stickney, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), arrived to inspect the damage. Three days later, still waiting for the help the politicians had promised at their photo ops, she called her own press conference. "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?" she asked. "We need water. We need people. For God's sake, where are they.?"

A cri de coeur. A state of shock. A slow double take. In recoiling from the wrath of Andrew, the country absorbed a second jolt. President Bush said it was a bad idea to "play the blame game." In at least one sense, everyone could agree with him about that. Andrew was what the insurance companies call "an act of God," a happening for which no mere human can be held to account; and Force 5 hurricanes are so rare, one or two every century or so, that it's no wonder people get out of practice at coping with them. Still, some unsettling questions remained. The president went to Florida and Louisiana to show that he cared. The political issue, of course, was not how he felt but how he performed. On that score, Americans seemed a bit confused. A NEWSWEEK Poll showed that by 54-27 percent, they approved of the way he handled Andrew. But by 57-35 percent, they also thought he worried more about the problems of people in Iraq and Bosnia than about Americans hit by hurricanes. The more significant issue ran far deeper. Caught within Andrew's vicious centripetal whirl, had ordinary Americans pulled together-or flown apart?

Given the force of the storm, some distortions seemed inevitable. When the gusts hit 170 miles per hour, when debris starts shooting through your windows, when your roof lifts off and the rain cascades in, it destroys any sense of the normal. Mobile homes crumpled like beer cans, and conventional bungalows smashed into pickup sticks, symbolized how Andrew had made one zone of society come unglued. Disasters penetrate like lasers, revealing weaknesses beneath the smooth surfaces of a community. Andrew ripped an area where population outstripped social infrastructure. Mushroom development had brought cheap-jack construction. Building codes were pegged to lesser storms. "By cramming as many people as we did into this place, we were setting ourselves up for a tragedy," says Carl Hiaasen, a Miami Herald columnist.

How much can the government do to see you through such moments? A week before the storm, Maj. Gen. John Heldstab, director of military disaster relief for the United States Army, began tracking Andrew as it blew west from Africa. He and a small staff of three officers began looking at what military equipment should be prepositioned in case the hurricane struck the American coast. Working from precedents set by earlier storms like Hugo, which did $5.6 billion damage on the East Coast three years ago, they compiled lists of items like rations, cots, blankets, tents, water, electric generators, transport planes and 'dozers to remove debris. Among other things, the military had 63 million Meals Ready to Eat within airlift distance of Florida. The command team was ready to move a week in advance. As one Pentagon planner put it, "We were leaning so far forward our noses were on the ground."

By the time the hurricane slammed into Florida, the Pentagon had set up a 24-hour-a-day special task force at the Army Operations Center. The idea was to coordinate relief supplies; but the first requests were routine: health teams, 234,000 MRES, some choppers, portable lighting equipment, flatbed trucks and bulldozers, communications equipment. By the end of Monday, state officials in Florida did not have a clear idea of the damage in south Florida. "Chiles was telling the federal government 'We need your help'," recalls one Pentagon aide. "We were saying, 'Fine, it's a big government. What do you need and where do you need it?"' The civilians hesitated. Pentagon tacticians complain that it took 48 hours for state and federal officials to grasp the extent of the damage. "We had no idea what it was like in south Florida," said one military planner. "Neither did the governor."

The immediate problem was that FEMA, nerve center for the relief effort, appeared to have gone brain dead. Jimmy Carter set up the agency in 1979 to provide a single point of accountability for the federal government's disaster response. Its duties were to train emergency workers, organize civil defense, plan for national emergencies and pay the lion's share of relief costs when the president declared a disaster area. Under the Reagan administration, the agency focused on nuclear attacks, an ideological cast that undermined its capability to handle natural disasters. Critics say it became a dumping ground for paying off low-level political debts; scandals demoralized its staff. After the agency bobbled relief efforts during Hurricane Hugo, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina was so furious he called FEMA "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever seen." After Andrew, it lost two critical days before realizing how bad things were in Florida. "FEMA isn't up to the job," charged one outraged relief official. He added that he had to "bully them a hell of a lot" just to get anything done.

As Andrew bore down on Florida, the agency did manage to lumber into action. It activated an emergency operations center crammed with computers and maps; it notified 26 federal agencies and the American Red Cross to get ready; it immersed itself in a 27-page Federal Response Plan larded with appendixes. "The whole thing seems to have fallen apart," said one disaster consultant. The agency was particularly proud of the 800 number it set up for Andrew's victims. The device failed to impress survivors of Hugo in Charleston, S.C. "Excuse me? This is an improvement?" asked one of them. "And what about the victims whose homes were blown away?" In any case, callers registering losses and trying to locate missing relatives immediately tied up the toll-free line. By the end of the week a new message advised the desperate to consider phoning back in a few days if they had insurance or if their property was not extensively damaged; to call the nearest Red Cross office if the need was urgent; or to wait on the line, in which case, a busy signal greeted them.

Within the first day of the storm, the Pentagon was prepared to airlift supplies that were not requisitioned for another three days. Pentagon officials complained that the requests they got from Governor Chiles, funneled through FEMA, were for hurricane damage much less severe than what Andrew had actually inflicted. They added that FEMA should have been primed to figure out for Chiles what he needed in south Florida. Instead, one of them said, the agency "was still getting its act together as of Tuesday." By Wednesday, General Heldstab saw that once FEMA and state officials pulled themselves together, they were going to draw heavily on the military. He alerted the U.S. Forces Command in Atlanta, which telephoned the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

Still, FEMA's executives and state officials dithered. Over the next 24 hours, they only asked the Pentagon to provide minimal aid: more air force C-5 flights to transport supplies, airlift controllers, a 500-kilowatt power generator, 20 portable light sets. FEMA finally had the Army Corps of Engineers contract out for $3 million worth of plastic roofing, power generators and potable water. But bureaucratic dawdling over contracts and deliveries stalled just about everything. In Florida, angry victims asked loudly how the United States could move so swiftly and sure in Kuwait and Iraq and so sluggishly in Dade County. Pentagon officers, furious, had to defend themselves after civilian politicians and agencies seemed willing to let the military take the blame.

The politics of the hurricane blew more wildly than any anemometer could measure. The storm found Jim Baker, the president's top strategist, coming to the White House for the first day of his new job as chief of staff. At about the same time, the president was talking to reporters on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base before boarding Air Force One for campaign stops in New Jersey and Connecticut. He declared Florida a disaster area, expressed his sympathy, said that help from FEMA was on the way. Aboard the flight northward he called Baker. "I want to go," he said. "Give me a couple of hours and I'll check it out," Baker replied. When the Defense Department reported that Miami's Opa-Locka airport wasn't secure, and the Department of Transportation said it couldn't guarantee transport on the ground, Baker phoned Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood--Secretary Dick Cheney stayed on vacation--and Transportation Secretary Andrew Card. "We're coming," he said. "Make it happen."

They did, and the president was able to step off his plane in Miami at 6 p.m., just in time for local TV to cover his arrival live. He had waited a week before going to Charleston after Hugo struck; Bill Clinton had beaten him to Los Angeles after the riots last May. This time he was first on the ground. He followed through two days later with a second quick trip to Louisiana. "The politics of disaster relief are amazingly straightforward," explained Greg Schneiders, a Democratic political consultant who helped create FEMA during the Carter administration. "It's an amalgam of ambulance-chasing and pork barrel. You show up, express your concern and promise money-and you will be rewarded with votes." At first it looked like Andrew might give the president a boost in a state that has 25 electoral votes. He had arrived quickly; he looked compassionate. One campaign official joked that it wouldn't be so bad if Andrew blew on up "to Kentucky and the rust-belt states" where Bush was behind in the polls.

The joke was callow-and it represented a miscalculation. The danger in the patronage of relief is that if something goes wrong, the president quickly shares in the blame. And things did go wrong. The first was a little belly-bumping match with Chiles, a Democrat. During the Miami stop the president offered Chiles federal troops several times. The governor, sensitive to old-fashioned political ideas like not truckling to Washington, and still out of touch with the full scope of the hurricane's damage, turned him down. It took the two leaders four days to get troops in place. The wound up scapegoating each other in a running political skit that did nothing to polish either man's image.

At sunrise on Wednesday, the full extent of the damage began to register at the White House Situation Room, the long, narrow place, half underground, crammed with electronic communications gear used during the gulf war. In time for Baker's senior-staff meeting at 7:30 a.m., the sit team, according to one player, reported "a picture that describes much greater destruction than people originally thought." By that time local officials were hotly attacking the administration. The president then sent Card to Florida to head a task force that would cut through the bureaucratic mess. Finally, one DOD strategist says, Card realized that the White House "didn't have a clue about how bad things were down there." Chiles, a good federalist, still believed he could handle the situation on his own. By noon Thursday the Pentagon still had received no orders. Then, in a conference call that linked Chiles, Card and Bush, the logjam broke. Within the next 24 hours 7,000 federal troops were in action. Over the weekend, the number rose to 14,500.

In Texas, Clinton was able to chuckle over a highly partisan sign that read: WHAT DO GEORGE BUSH AND ANDREW HAVE IN COMMON? THEY'RE BOTH NATURAL DISASTERS. But he chose to phone the governors of Florida and Louisiana rather than go there. "Obviously the bureaucracy got in the way," he told NEWSWEEK. "We need to go back and sort out how it was done and how it could be done differently the next time. You need someone who can commit resources-not just FEMA-that's what did not happen." NEWSWEEK'S Poll showed Clinton leading Bush by 10 points (49-39). Riding a 10-point lead, he wasn't making any foolish moves.

A more seasoned view came from Joseph Riley, the mayor of Charleston-the main victim of the last Big Blow. "The unnecessary slowness in responding after Hugo seems to have happened again," he said. In Riley's view, FEMA may be able to handle "long-haul matters of repair, reconstruction and insurance"; but he still finds the agency weak in handling emergencies that demand an immediate response. FEMA's defenders said the agency was unfairly taking too much flak; that the storm was more than any government agency could have handled alone. While attention was focused on the Pentagon, other government agencies worked feverishly through out the week. The Public Health Service sent MASH-style medical units, the Army Corps of Engineers distributed more than 200,000 gallons of water and the Department of Agriculture gave out tons of surplus food.

Bush improved matters by appointing Card and getting troops on the move. But nexttime scenarios did nothing to comfort this-time victims. In the ruins, Charlie Myers, 65, stood holding a peach and a loaf of bread. "This is all I have left," he said. What plans did he have? "Survive, buddy."

4 dead

Worst damage on island of Eleuthera

At least 22 dead

63,000 homes destroyed

$20 billion in damage

1 dead

At least 44,000 homeless

More than 300,000 homes and businesses without power at height of storm

Damage of at least $300 million NEWSWEEK POLL

Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Bush has handled the emergency caused by Hurricane Andrew?

54% Approve 27% Disapprove

Do you think Bush is more concerned about the problems of people in places like Iraq and Bosnia than the plight of Americans like those affected by Andrew?

57% yes 35% No

Was the government as prepared as it could have been for the emergency?

39% yes 46% No

For this NEWSWEEK Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed 1,057 registered voters by telephone Aug. 27-28. Margin of error, +/- 3 percentage points for the Bush-Clinton race, 5 for other, questions. "Don't know" and other, responses not shown. The NEWSWEEK POLL copyright 1992 by NEWSWEEK, Inc.