HOMESTEAD, FLA. -- When the winds died, the people found themselves in a state of nature, side by side with beasts. They moved among the roofless ruins of their homes. There were no rules anymore, no laws, and time itself had reverted to an elemental rhythm: the suffocating pre-dawn humidity, the pitiless midday sun, the soaking cloudbursts, the night that brought a darkness blacker than anyone could have imagined. The people had to learn everything all over again, the basic procedures of human existence, how to eat, how to sleep, how to go to the bathroom when you no longer have a bathroom, how to find fuel, how to protect the tribe from invaders. The reinvention of civilization would not be easy.

On the road that leads to the Everglades there are three families living under a single large tent, waiting for the looters to come. So far there have only been baboons. The baboons escaped from a research facility destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. When the first ape showed up, the men got out their guns and fired warning shots. They threw trash cans and made loud noises. The creature wouldn't leave. It looked nasty, hungry, hideous. In the contest of man vs. ape, the smaller-brained primate had no chance.

"It was the Chinese assault rifle, wasn't it, that Mikey was carrying around?" says one of the Debbies.

"It was the shotgun," says another one of the Debbies.

There are four women here, and they are all named Debbie. There are no rules anymore. The tent was put up by Vietnam veterans who came to the rescue on their Harleys. Two flags fly overhead, one American, one Confederate. They spend the day waiting, waiting, waiting for whatever it is that is supposed to happen now that civilization has come to an end. At least they have supplies now: Beers and sodas are in the coolers, and a few iridescent red pickled sausages float in a gallon jar.

One of the men, Don Lindsey, is wearing a shirt on his head. "My last clean dirty shirt," he says. A pearl-handled revolver juts from the pocket where some men carry a wallet. He keeps his squirrel gun, "a Jed Clampett special," nearby in case the looters come. "We have an arsenal," says one of the Debbies.

George Koci walks out to the cucumber field where they buried the baboon. A simple wooden cross marks the spot. Koci says they asked a passing police officer what to do, and he said to go ahead and shoot it. They felt pretty bad about it anyway.

"We didn't want to do it," he says. "He looked so innocent-looking."

What happened to South Dade could happen to anyone, anywhere, either in the obvious manner of a hurricane or in some subtler form, some personal hurricane, a health disaster, a spiritual catastrophe, a financial cataclysm. There is no moral to this story, but there is a question: What will you do when your storm comes?

You can run. You can fight. You can be a giver or be a taker. You can lose all sense of yourself and totally disintegrate or you can achieve a mental clarity, an inner peace, a resolve.

I spoke to dozens of hurricane victims last week, and no one seemed more indomitable than Mary Ann Ballard, age 77. She lives in a house built in 1908 in the Redlands, an area of avocado groves, plant nurseries and pine woods, an area where the streets have lovely names like Silver Palm Drive and Farm Life Road. There is nothing lovely here anymore. Ballard lost her own avocado groves, and has damage to her house, and suddenly has no income. Her only insurance is her circle of family and friends. She had spent 15 years resurrecting a historic village in Goulds, a stop on Henry Flagler's railroad line to Key West. She turned abandoned buildings into antique galleries and artisan shops, and called it Cauley Square. The two-story main building is now one story; the building marked Tea Room is now on its side, as though someone booted it over.

"This no worse than the bombing of London, the bombing of Hamburg, Hiroshima. I just intend to rebuild. I think Americans are ingenious, clever, courageous, and I think we're unsinkable, especially Southerners," she said. "Them that stay and rebuild will be infinitely strengthened by this. The easy thing to do is pack up and leave."

Her husband of 52 years, Maj. Gen. Robert Ballard, died in April. He loved to look out the windows and see the royal palms everywhere, more than 150 of them, tall and straight, hiding the home from the rest of the world. Only 23 of the palms survived the hurricane.

She said: "We all go through fire. Sometimes it's emotional and no one sees it. This is obvious, and so you get sympathy. I have a deep philosophy that everyone suffers in some terrible way in their lifetime, and that is the test." And she says, "I hope before I die, I pass this test."

'Hang In There' The storm struck the mainland shortly before 5 a.m. on Aug. 24, with 141 mph sustained winds. The National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables registered gusts as high as 164 mph before its measuring instruments were blown off the roof. On the Saffir-Simpson scale it was a Category 4 storm, one notch below the ultimate level of violence. The meteorologists say it was a "dry" storm, and fast, and unusually small for a hurricane, merely 40 miles wide, beady-eyed; the victims say it was an unusually large tornado.

The tales of terror and heroism down here are so common that they all start to blend together, a single near-death experience. People recall the glow on the horizon as the transformers blew up. The first sign that this would not be just another hard blow came when the rain shot horizontally through the cracks around the front door. The home's entrance became its weak link, buckling as the winds topped 100 miles an hour; once the storm got inside, the roof would blow, the house literally bursting, like something that shouldn't have been put in the microwave. Such noise! The storm roared so loudly it drowned out the snapping of huge trees and the playful rearrangement of parked cars. In a few short hours, South Dade lost not only $20 billion or so in property, but all its shade as well.

Jack Kephart, 67, felt his room collapsing, and went to the room of another tenant in his building, Peter Johnson, 42. Dade County is famous for racial tension, but the older white man and the younger black man, mere acquaintances, huddled together in that little room, enduring the roar of the storm, and when the roof fell and they were buried in the rubble they called out each other's names, and said, "Hang in there," simple but sincere instructions. Johnson says: "We were down in the rubble praying. The rubble protected us with a bit of shelter, even though we were rained on." A week after the storm, it's all so matter-of-fact. But he feels good about what is happening within the community, how it is spiritually strong even if the infrastructure is gone. "The various ethnic groups all came together. It wasn't about social differences, nationality, it was about survival, the basic necessities of life."

Everyone has a story. There's almost a glut of heroism. (At one point I found myself actually yawning while a man told how he had managed to save his kids by leading them from his collapsing house, through the dark, over and around downed power lines, to a safer house during the brief calm as the eye of the storm passed overhead.) People tell of putting mattresses on their heads, of hiding in closets, of packing the children into the cabinets beneath the kitchen sink. "I was using myself as a wedge between the floor and the ceiling," says Miami Herald reporter Don Van Natta, who had been trapped in a collapsing motel room minutes after promising, as the eye passed, to file a story for the next edition.

The wreckage looks like tornado damage, from Kendall Drive (Southwest 88th Street) all the way past the point where the street numbers reach into the middle 300s and the last few splotches of subdivisions give way to unblemished sawgrass swamps. This disaster cannot be captured by a photograph, a newsreel or even the most adjective-laden paragraph. You have to drive it. It seems impossible that no one recognized the extent of the damage for several days. We have become accustomed to instant, precise, 24-hour, satellite-bounced information, and the initial read on Hurricane Andrew was that it wasn't so bad, a mere eight-foot storm surge. The latest estimate is that 15 people died during the storm itself. The Dan Rathers of journalism barely looked over the scene before taking off for Louisiana, to hoist their microphones in the air and catch Andrew's next howl, the wonderful scream of news.

Not even the locals knew at first. Maybe one reason is that Dade County is a big place and the southern portions do not significantly overlap, culturally, with the heart of Miami. Most Miamians live north of the severely damaged areas. Places like Homestead and Florida City are road-trip distance, places you would go for an adventure, an airboat ride, a taste of alligator meat, the reassuring sight of endless bean fields.

Every Miamian probably knew someone who lost his or her house, maybe several people, those friends who live in deepest Kendall or Cutler Ridge, the hard-core commuters who do half their work on the car phone. But most Miamians just lost trees, at worst. The storm passed through on a Monday morning, but not until mid-week was it clear that the homeless numbered over 200,000, that the damage would be in the tens of billions, that this kind of property damage hasn't been seen in the mainland United States since the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

You could argue that Hurricane Andrew destroyed the most authentic part of Dade County. South Dade was never concocted for the entertainment of tourists. It never caught on to the pastel rage of the Miami Vice years. There are no shiny banks, few Cigarette boats and Ferraris. Visitors would stay at a motel or at Grandma Newton's Bed and Breakfast (which now lies across the street in a heap -- Grandma survived under a table in a shed out back).

You would go through Homestead and Florida City to get to the Florida Keys or Everglades National Park, but you probably wouldn't stop unless you had an affection for warehouses filled with tomatoes, or wanted to go to the kind of bar where everyone has a tattoo, or had a hankering for some of the Mexican food at El Toro Taco, famous for chile con queso. Or you might go just for the expansiveness of the terrain, the vast horizon, the thunderheads rising like mountains out of the Everglades.

"There was a tremendous serenity about the Redlands," says Ballard. "Wherever there are acres and acres of trees and a house or two, there is a tremendous peacefulness."

Now the Redlands are defoliated, and to the south, in Homestead and Florida City, there are just miles and miles of rubble, trash, punched-out buildings, lines of sunburned people and an occupation army of 20,000 troops. On rural roads you see soldiers marching around in red berets, going who knows where.

It is a horrible scene, tragic, and yet it is also a little boy's fantasy, the militarizing of daily life. Choppers everywhere! Real soldiers in uniform! School postponed until Sept. 14!

Kids whiz around on bikes. On Wednesday the boys and girls at the Everglades Labor Camp, once home to thousands of migrant farmworkers, wheeled around the ruins of their neighborhood, helping the animal control officers round up stray dogs. Their masters gone, the dogs had started running in packs in the evening.

The Generator Man

The emergence of civilization took more than a week, and it required the harnessing of technology. This was the second stage of the emergence from the state of nature, after the food had been gathered and the shelter built. Paul Bailey, for example, reinvented the shower. The West Kendall salesman, whose house was gutted by the storm, put a nozzle on a bilge pump, hooked it up to the boat's battery, dropped the pump into a trash basket full of water, squatted naked by the boat and scrubbed down. Not a pretty sight, but, he says, "it's wonderful, it's what I look forward to at the end of the day."

There is an exhilaration in the wake of a catastrophe. People can feel themselves passing the test. They are living simply, but living large. You learn who you are. You can smell yourself. You bunker down in the ruins of your life and say, "Here, I make a stand."

Olin McKenzie doesn't seem to want it to end. One day he was a dentist, the next, a frontiersman. He lives in the affluent Pinecrest neighborhood, about a half-mile north of where the 10-mile-wide "eye wall" passed like the blade of a lawn mower; that distance is the difference between those who lost their homes and those who merely lost trees, windows, cars, boats, electricity, water.

"We've been camping. We've been spending 20 hours a day living -- getting the daily requirements for life, your food, your fuel," he says.

He and his family bathed in the swimming pool. McKenzie rigged up a generator, then scrounged up generators for a half dozen other families, and soon he was the Generator Man, the guy everyone would go to for survival tips. He could go to a hotel, sleep in AC, eat in fine restaurants, but it wouldn't be right -- he's the Generator Man!

His friend Dave Barry spent the first few days after the storm chain-sawing downed trees, precisely the kind of thing he would normally have paid someone else to do. "In South Florida we pay men to do our yard, do our pool, everything, and I have this bizarre profession of writing humor columns," Barry says. "I know this last week I felt really honest."

He and his wife, Beth, and their son, Robby, gave me a flashlight tour of their back yard, where once had stood a veritable tropical hammock.

"The operative word around here is 'gone.' People keep saying, remember the so-and-so? Gone!" said Beth.

"Here's our power pole," said Dave. "Gone!"

Beth: "We had here a beautiful queen palm, a very valuable tree."

"Gone!" they shouted as one voice.

The subtropical ecosystem of South Florida will rebound. Hurricanes are encoded into the biological design of the peninsula; the native species know how to absorb the blow. The task now is for the humans to prove they are similarly adaptable.

Perhaps the can-do exuberance is just a phase, a denial reaction. It may give way to fatigue, anger and disillusionment once the national spotlight is gone. Things change daily, if not hourly. Baking heat turns to thunderous rain; shock becomes serenity, serenity becomes despair. The people camped out in their roofless homes will have to get out, eventually. Those who desperately wished their damaged homes could be saved may change their minds when they realize that it will never be the same, that the doors will never hang right, that the yards will never look the same, that the resale possibilities have all but vanished. The people who dug the bay bottom muck and the dead fish out of their living rooms -- they have to pray for a total loss or they're stuck with the thing the rest of their lives.

A stage in human civilization is the spreading of stories. When a disaster strikes, the stories come in the form of wild, crazy, horrifying rumors.

That there are 2,000 people living in the Everglades, illegal aliens afraid of deportation!

That the government is covering up the number of dead -- 80 people were crushed in one building alone!

That as the hurricane approached, authorities dug trenches at the landfill. Mass graves to bury the dead!

And the classic: That thousands of AIDS-infected monkeys, from a medical research facility, are roaming the streets!

The last was not totally false. There were a lot of animals on the loose -- simian, bovine, canine -- but they weren't vectors for disease, they were just in the same situation as everyone else, homeless and hungry.

I saw two heifers and a steer walking single-file down a suburban street. Two boys on all-terrain vehicles were buzzing around them. The steer, confused, tried to mount one of the heifers. There are no rules anymore.

I stopped by Monkey Jungle. Trashed, naturally. A lush paradise reduced to sticks. Bill Puckett, who runs the St. Augustine Alligator Farm tourist attraction, came down to help clean things up. He showed me around, saying, "The unique thing about the Monkey Jungle is that the people are in the cage and the monkeys run free." But the cage in which we were walking was torn, ripped up. Monkeys were all around us, waiting for something. Since the storm, the humans and the monkeys run free.

The Limits of Relief

The U.S. military dresses the same whether it is storming a foreign country or passing out water to storm victims. The standard outfit is the Battle Dress Uniform, or BDU, and even the way the sleeves can be rolled up is covered by regulations (it must be just so). Undershirts are required, and boots, and long pants, everything camouflage green even though there are no leaves for 30 miles. "Comfort doesn't enter the equation," an officer tells me, rolling up his sleeves. "The Army cares about versatility." Panama, Kuwait, South Florida -- the BDU goes everywhere.

The hurricane relief effort was initially as disastrous as the storm itself. People had nothing to eat or drink for days; some were literally trapped in their homes, cut off from the outside world. The emergence of capitalism, another step in the story of civilization, was an ugly sight at first: Trucks rolled in selling ice for five bucks a bag, and $500 generators were hawked for $1,500 each (all were snapped up -- supply and demand).

Local officials demanded to know where the cavalry was on this one, and soon enough, disaster relief became almost a national preoccupation. Americans are so big-hearted they are going to beat this town into the ground with disaster relief. Trucks of food have already been turned away; the radio says more trucks are on the way, from all over America, a convoy of humanitarianism and (let it be said) self-promotion. That smell in the air down here: Bodies? No, food, rotting. There are piles of clothes on the roadside, boxes and boxes of clothes strewed all over the ground, heavy-fabricked stuff you could never wear in this heat anyway. In some places you can't tell the hurricane damage from the relief damage. Socialism means well but it's not always efficient.

The real problem is, disasters can't be repaired with charity, and disaster victims can't be rescued by the cavalry. They are ultimately on their own: They have to reclaim a role in society, something other than "hurricane victim."

I went into one of the many disaster relief headquarters, inside Champagne's, a Homestead disco. A generator filled the room with a dull rumbling. More unsettling was the light, an orange glow, with spots of light roaming the walls -- yes, reflections off the mirrored ball twirling over the dance floor, where newly homeless people ate free sandwiches and waited to be processed.

Sharon Fields, 42, had lost her house, so she came here to get relief. But she didn't know what kind of relief was being offered, or if she was eligible, or if it was really a good idea to take it. She was told to take a number. "Everything is a line!" she said. She turned to her daughter: "I can't take much more. Some people can roll with the punches. I can't."

She waited 15 minutes and then Sharon Davis, an employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, came for her. Davis had a form marked Disaster Assistance Registration/Application, and a separate form filled with warnings and stipulations. Davis went into a monotonal explanation of the various types of benefits available, the caveats, the exceptions, and finally Fields said: "I don't know where I fit in. My insurance papers mean nothing to me. I am frazzled! I want to get out of here!"

Could she take the form home? No, said Davis. Fields asked Davis several questions, and each time, Davis left the table to find out the answer from a supervisor. Eventually Fields decided to forgo the relief for the moment -- it was impossible to figure out. The final stage of civilization: We get confused by the forms.

Before she left, Fields said what everyone says: Some people have it worse. She pointed to her son-in-law. "He's a repossession man. All his car dealerships are gone. Gone!"

The Art of Survival On the trail of the Human Spirit one finds contradictions. A gutted motel on U.S. 1 in Homestead has the spray-painted greeting ENTER AND DIE (whatever happened to "No Vacancy"?). The enthusiastic gunplay, the post-apocalyptic fear of marauders, the squinty-eyed survivalism, hardly paints a picture of Norman Rockwell community togetherness. On the other hand, there are all these good samaritans everywhere, people willing to drop everything to go to South Dade and help in any way possible. All that corny stuff that President Bush said about the American Spirit -- it's a fact!

One afternoon while looking over a relief station I ran into an old friend, Paula Harper, an art history professor at the University of Miami. "There's not many calls right now for art history professors," she said. I asked her to say something cosmic about what it all means, the grand lesson of the disaster. She said: "I can't take quite that broad a perspective at the moment. What we were doing was putting all the cans marked 'meat' in one pile and all the cans marked 'tuna' in another pile."

So let that be the cosmic lesson. There comes a day in your life when you simply have to separate the meat cans from the tuna cans.