In The Eye Of The Storm

You get up in the morning and you’ve got 20,000 cases of produce to move and it seems pretty important. Until you’ve been to Homestead. And then you wonder how you can possibly be doing anything else but helping those people. Everything else you do somehow seems trivial and unimportant.

I saw Pal Brooks of J.F. Brooks & Sons, Inc. on television discussing the merits of government aid for the packers and growers affected by Hurricane Andrew. And all I could think of was that I really want him to meet my father. My Dad always used to talk about the government as a sort of unusual partner. If he had a good year the government was always there, with its hand out — asking for its share. But if he had a losing year, somehow the government never showed up with its check to cover its share of the losses. I think what Mr. Brooks was saying was that the people and businesses of South Dade County had been paying to their “partner” for a long time. Now was the time for a little check writing on the other side.

To pass through Homestead or Florida City today is to imagine yourself in another country. Acres and acres that were just weeks ago filled with lush foliage and energetic lime trees simply have nothing there anymore. It’s like those Planet Of The Apes movies that take place on earth after a nuclear war. You’re at the same place, but the transformation is so dramatic you wouldn’t know it but for the occasional surviving landmark.

What will happen to the produce and foliage industry in South Dade is a bit of a question mark. Though most people carried insurance on buildings, not all carried it on the trees, crops in the field and inventory. Some people won’t make it.

In addition, some of the land previously used for agriculture might be sold for development. On the other hand, some are saying that in a hurricane zone, agriculture, with its low density of population, may be the ideal land use.

Some of the areas hit by Hurricane Andrew are developed only because subsidized Federal Flood Insurance is available. People are pointing out that making this flood insurance available at prices lower than the commercial insurers would charge is encouraging inappropriate development in areas with real flood danger. If these moves to limit the Federal Flood Insurance program bear fruit, more land might be available for agriculture.

The aftermath of a disaster such as this points out why making sound public policy is so difficult.

Now that the hurricane is gone, public agencies and officials are looking to learn the “lessons” and incorporate these lessons into the zoning codes. But almost every proposal translates into higher housing costs. Most obviously, it has been proposed that mobile homes be banned in Dade County. Mobile homes were found to be very vulnerable (no surprise there) to a severe hurricane.

As the sincere people who propose these rules reason, by banning mobile homes, billions of dollars of property damage and possible loss of life can be avoided during the next hurricane. All true. The only problem is that most people who live in mobile homes don’t do so because they like the look better than brick. They do so because it’s the only home they can afford. That’s why even with hurricanes and all, people would be lined up to buy mobile homes tomorrow in South Florida if they were a good deal. To ban the mobile homes is much like passing a law saying no house can cost under a certain amount.

The produce industry has been buffeted over the past several years by concerns about pesticides and food safety. Hurricane Andrew shows that these issues are only supported by the public because of our society’s great affluence and the confidence that our creature comforts won’t be sacrificed by pesticide cutbacks. The minute a hurricane comes, causes flooding, cuts off electricity and people start living without air conditioning, all of a sudden we hear cries for pesticide use to kill the mosquitoes.

In a tragedy such as Andrew, one feels guilty about laughing at anything. Yet on behalf of the produce industry I allowed myself a sort of wry smile when television anchorpersons and radio announcers, who you just know under normal circumstances would be only too happy to speak against pesticides, were spending hour after hour praising the pesticide-spraying planes the government had sent in, assuring everyone the pesticide was absolutely safe.

Perhaps, though I can’t say I believe it, this hurricane might make people a little more aware of the positive role science plays in improving our lives. So that the next time some Luddite wants to attack our use of technology to grow food, he’ll find a populace more skeptical of those who speak of a pre-scientific world as healthy and wholesome. People in South Florida know what life is like without the advances of modernity — nasty, poor, brutish and short.