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Miami Herald 6/1/02

Uncertainty in South Dade - Low Income Neighborhoods have not bounced back 10 years after Andrew

By William Yardley

Ten years after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade, the region is an uncertain frontier -- abandoned by some as a wasteland, embraced by others as the last large corner of open land in the county.

And today marks the annual affirmation of uncertainty: The first day of hurricane season.

''Everybody likes to see the end of August go by,'' said Robert Anderson, chairman of the Vision Council, an economic development group in the area.

Census figures released last week show poverty levels in most South Dade communities rose and median household income fell -- the changes sometimes sharp in each direction -- from 1990 to 2000, the decade Hurricane Andrew instantly reshaped on Aug. 24, 1992.

The route to recovery, however, appears more complicated than simple statistical comparisons between then and now. Strong signs of progress stand almost side-by-side with bleak evidence of stagnation.

Regardless of statistics or storms, developers running out of room to build elsewhere are selling a long-term forecast as sunny as it was when workers finally nailed down the railroad ties that linked Miami to Key West in 1912.

''I think the availability of land in other areas of the county really make it such that Homestead is just logically the next place people will move to,'' said Anthony Seijas, Miami-Dade division president for Lennar Homes.

In recent weeks, heavy construction machinery has rolled in Homestead, where Lennar and others are planning more than 2,000 new homes, most targeted for young families who would commute north to work. But just up the road in Naranja and Goulds, U.S. 1 retains its post-hurricane nickname, ''the Dead Zone,'' a dreary corridor of For-Lease signs and used-car lots.

In Florida City, the mayor boasts of brokering deals to bring big-box stores to his exit-ramp town. But in unincorporated Naranja, served by the county government, the poverty rate jumped from 18 to 50 percent in the decade of Hurricane Andrew.

Countywide, the poverty level stayed flat, at 18 percent. It is a given that Andrew forever altered the landscape, driving away a large chunk of middle-class residents and expediting the closure of Homestead Air Force Base, a key economic engine.


But locals say there is more to it: Some say income figures are skewed by seasonal migrant workers. Some say international farming competition, spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Clinton signed in 1993, almost instantly began shrinking agricultural operations and related job opportunities.

Others say county government, consumed with issues in more urban areas to the north, will never be as devoted to post-Andrew economic redevelopment in unincorporated areas like Naranja and Leisure City as will local governments in Homestead and Florida City.

And many places were far from thriving before Andrew struck. The median household income in Goulds rose 2 percent to $19,633 in 2000. In Florida City, income declined from $20,658 to $14,923. All figures are adjusted for inflation.

But in Leisure City, a more prosperous area close to the closed air base, median household income dropped from $34,299 to $29,091. And nowhere took the hit that Naranja did. There, the median income sank from $32,112 to $18,825, compared with a 3 percent increase countywide to $35,966.

Parsuram Ramkissoon bought the International House of Pancakes restaurant on U.S. 1 in Naranja the week before Andrew struck. Unlike so many others, he stayed.

''I came down here and said, you know, I'm going to make it here,'' said Ramkissoon.

He has been honored by the community for his resolve and his constant demands for attention from the county, but he said the loss of middle-income homeowners and the rise of renters continues to hurt his business and the stability of the area.

''Nobody has an interest in this area,'' he said, ``even the people who are living here.''

Places like Naranja, Leisure City and Princeton are unincorporated, without formal local governments. Some say they also lack lobbying power with the county and state.


''In a municipality we have the ability to touch things more directly, as opposed to being a very small part of a very large community,'' said Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace. ''I negotiated directly with both Wal-Mart and Home Depot,'' two big retailers who have come to U.S. 1 in Florida City in the last few years.

But Anderson, of the Vision Council, noted that Palm Drive, a major thoroughfare in Florida City, is striking in its array of social services activity.

''You get the feeling that the population that's working is taking care of the population that isn't,'' Anderson said.

Arturo Lopez, executive director for the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations, said the minimum-wage plight of migrant workers is probably little different than it was in 1990, although new, post-Andrew housing has improved living conditions.

Lopez also said that an agricultural trend in the region to move toward ornamental nurseries has created more year-round work for migrants, stabilizing the workforce somewhat.

''It means that their children can now attend school full-time, rather than leaving a month early and starting late,'' Lopez said. ``The nursery industry is interested in creating a stable workforce. They see it as something that will work for them, too.''


But wages remain low.

Ben Arrasola, 26, dodges layoffs and juggles jobs to piece together a living, and he still does better than many who work in agriculture here. He drives a forklift for two different packing houses in Florida City, making $8 an hour in one job and $6.25 in the other. In the winter, he said, he works as many as 80 hours a week.

For Arrasola, the signs of residential development coming to the area -- often where farming operations once existed -- are a mixed blessing.

''You see all the houses going up and all the businesses going down,'' he said.

But Anderson, the Vision Council chairman, and Seijas, the Miami-Dade division president for Lennar, said those houses eventually could mean more and better opportunity for workers like Arrasola.

''As you see more development and newer residents coming in, you'll see the existing community get a facelift,'' Seijas said. ``It's going to get buzz and it's going to attract that much more traffic.''


Seijas said that even desolate places like Naranja, where the county is in the process of installing a sewer system and a busway extending down U.S. 1 that could include miniature ''town centers,'' could see new single-family housing being built, particularly since Broward and western Miami-Dade are running out of room.

''It would not surprise me to see us develop there in the near future,'' Seijas said. ``You want to kind of test the market before you get in deeper.''

But developers have said similar things about South Miami-Dade, before and after Andrew. Finding a reliable barometer for the region's economic direction is a challenge.

At the Playpen South Nude Review on U.S. 1 in Goulds, an assistant manager who identified himself only as David said his business' relative stability was not necessarily a good gauge for the area's economic potential.

''People come here for two reasons,'' he said, stepping outside the dark interior, where a woman wearing florescent yellow -- very little of it -- was engaged with a brass column that reached from ceiling to bar top. ``They got money, or they got sorrows.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson and staff writer Andrea Elliott contributed to this report.