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  •   Troops, Aid Arrive in Ravaged S. Florida

    By Thomas W. Lippman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, August 29, 1992; Page A1

    MIAMI, AUG. 28—The huge machinery of the federal government and the U.S. armed forces rumbled into action today to bring food, water and a small measure of comfort to victims of Hurricane Andrew.

    Bitter criticism by state officials of the Bush administration's response and accusations of callous federal indifference from destitute families faded quickly this morning as giant Air Force transport planes began landing at local airports.

    Enthusiastic and blanket coverage by Miami television and radio stations and a conciliatory posture by Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) ensured that there would be no repetition of a front-page headline this morning in the Miami Herald: "Metro {government} blames feds for failure of relief efforts."

    "The time for finger-pointing is past," Chiles said at an impromptu news conference outside the former Eastern Air Lines headquarters building, where state and federal officials have set up their field headquarters. "We're delighted that we're now getting the help. We need it."

    By midday, troops from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., were distributing hot meals and cold water to homeless families in southern Dade County. Long convoys of military trucks carrying generators, forklifts, water tanks, plastic sheeting and communications equipment were snaking southward.

    Coast Guard planes were ferrying diapers and canned goods once destined for Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the stricken area. Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were taking applications for housing reconstruction money. Public-health specialists were opening field clinics.

    Within three hours of the time that television cameras showed the first planes arriving, Chiles and members of his cabinet were proclaiming their satisfaction with what the state adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Ronald D. Harrison, called "a totally cooperative effort."

    Even Kate Hale, Dade County director of emergency operations, whose cry of "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?" had encapsulated the criticism Thursday, pronounced herself "delighted" as the first contingents of an estimated 7,000 federal troops arrived. "Yesterday was yesterday," she said.

    Alex Muxo, city manager of Homestead, a devastated town about 20 miles to the south where residents have been without food, water, electricity and shelter since Monday, also was conciliatory.

    "Nobody was prepared" for the scope of the disaster, he said. "What has been accomplished in four days by volunteers is incredible," he said, but he pronounced himself grateful that "Washington finally realized" how much additional aid was needed.

    The relief effort here is expected to take months, and it is far too early to determine how Florida's citizens eventually will judge it. But this attitudinal turnabout could be crucial to President Bush's chances of carrying this key state in the presidential election Nov. 3.

    The president told reporters in Washington today that "I am not going to participate in the blame game, nor is Governor Chiles. What we're trying to do is help people, and it doesn't do any good to get into 'who shot John.' "

    But "I can tell you this," Bush added, "that this large a military movement would not have taken place if there was not very early planning and cooperation by the military. And we have responded."

    White House officials and military officers here said the criticism was understandable, given that scores of thousands of people are hungry and destitute. But they insisted that the criticism never was justified.

    White House officials said they heard nothing from state officials Tuesday, the day after Andrew slashed through South Florida. First contact came Wednesday, they said, and Chiles resisted agreeing to summon federal troops until Thursday afternoon, contending that he could control the situation with state National Guard personnel.

    Chiles confirmed that assertion today. "I didn't think it was necessary," he said.

    White House officials here said FEMA authorities tried to protect their "turf" by retaining full control of the federal response until it became clear late Wednesday that the agency lacked resources and management skill to deal with a crisis that has left more than 250,000 people homeless in an area almost as large as Fairfax County.

    Transportation Secretary Andrew H. Card Jr., named by Bush to coordinate a relief effort clearly beyond FEMA's capability, toured the area Thursday. He "met with the governor and told him more help was needed," White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said today in Washington.

    But it was Thursday afternoon before Chiles formally requested federal troops and, even then, he asked for reserve units not eligible for callup, Fitzwater said.

    But "we took it as a formal request for military support," Fitzwater said, and the president directed the Defense Department to provide it after consulting with White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III.

    "We were told yesterday that we were needed, and we had soldiers on the ground here in 24 hours," said Army Lt. Col. Bull Reynolds as he watched troops set up a field kitchen in Homestead, one of hardest-hit areas.

    "I can understand the frustration of the people in south Dade," said Air Force Maj. Bobby D'Angelo as he supervised unloading of C-141 and C-5A transport planes at Opa-Locka Airport. "I live down there myself, and every hour seems like a month."

    But he said "the size of this disaster could not be simulated in advance. It's not like there was no {federal response} plan. It just had to be modified . . . . We're not offering excuses."

    Card said the troops and other federal workers from such agencies as the Public Health Service and Small Business Administration will "be here as long as necessary." Military officers at several sites said they expect to stay at least a month.

    The troops are not armed and not here to keep order, but state officials said their presence would free state National Guard units from disaster-relief duty and speed their return to helping local police prevent looting.

    Today's troop deployment looked like film coverage of Operation Desert Storm, of which many soldiers here are veterans. The battered roads of south Dade County are full of troop trucks and Humvees drawing honks and salutes from local residents, just as if they were liberators being hailed in a war zone.

    While the influx of troops clearly boosted morale across the region and eased the task of overburdened local officials and volunteers, it clearly is not going to mean overnight reconstruction or a complete return to normalcy soon.

    In much of the county today, public transportation resumed operations. More supermarkets reopened. Roads were cleared, and county officials announced alternate polling sites for voters in next Tuesday's primary, which Chiles refused to postpone.

    In areas generally north of the town of Kendall, which lay directly in Andrew's path, authorities reduced the dusk-to-dawn curfew to 11 p.m., and more restaurants opened tonight.

    But a huge area south of Miami looks like a war zone, where more than handouts of food and medicine will be required. Disaster-relief experts have predicted that, as people recover from the initial shock and realize that homes, possessions and jobs have vanished, longer-term aid and support would be required.

    Today, as if to confirm that, so many people lined up to apply for FEMA housing-reconstruction grants that they overwhelmed staff members at field-processing centers.

    At Champagne's restaurant, a pink stucco landmark in Homestead where families sat in the darkness around the former dance floor as their applications were processed, those who arrived after about 2 p.m. were turned away. They were given appointments to see FEMA workers Sept. 5.

    Staff writers William Booth, David S. Broder in Washington and Mary Jordan contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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