A Tale of Tent City

Last spring, when Dade County united with a local charity to help the hurricane's homeless, the partnership sounded too good to be true. It was.

Menendez maintains that the tent city needed to evacuate five times; the site log book and several workers indicate there were four evacuations. Surprisingly, Menendez says his office doesn't have a record of the exact number of evacuations, nor does he care to look into the matter. "I really don't want to remember all of the times I'd get beeped and it'd be Kate Hale telling me bad weather was on the way and we'd have to evacuate," he snaps. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to go to sleep as I planned; I'd have to go to South Dade and deal with the whole evacuation scenario and some very unfriendly and upset families. In the morning we'd listen to more bitching, more complaining, more kids crying."

The announcement took nearly everyone by surprise: though Menendez claims he had been preparing the closure "behind the scenes" and had consulted with the county manager, members of his staff, state officials, and federal representatives, he chose not to confer with the Archdiocese, HRS, his temporary social workers, Adriana Vann or her day care staff, Dade County Schools, or tent city residents. (And despite Menendez's claims to the contrary, FEMA's principal liaison to the tent city, Robert Mu*oz, says his agency wasn't notified beforehand, either.) "He came in and called a meeting of the staff," Garrian Hadley recalls. "He already had the news channels on the phone before the meeting, so that by the time we were done, they were already there. None of the residents knew until the cameras were there. I think that's sad."

The effects of the evacuations are a matter of debate. No one disputes that they were unsettling and, for some residents still suffering from the memory of Andrew, traumatic. One HRS supervisor, who worked at two of the evacuation sites, observed children crying and vomiting. Day care workers say it took a day or two after each evacuation for the kids to calm down and readjust to the tent city environment.

But nearly everyone except Menendez says the evacuations were not reason enough to close down the project. "The first two times were hard because I guess we were still thinking of Andrew," says Maritza Ayala. "But the last two times we knew how to do it and what to take with us and how long it would be to resume our lives. My kids didn't like getting up in the middle of the night, but once they got to the place and got cookies and candy, sandwiches and milk, they would sit around and talk with their friends for hours."

"The more they'd evacuate, the less they'd rant," Michael Lakowski concurs. His opinion of Menendez's rationale: "We knew that was bullshit."

A renewed sense of fear and desperation overcame the encampment after Menendez's announcement. Within two days, nearly all the social workers temporarily hired by the county had been fired, their cases transferred to Menendez's permanent staff, which until then had had little contact with the families. Within the week, the county began to place families into trailer parks; as soon as a family was hustled out, workers folded the tent they'd inhabited as if no one had ever lived there. "People saw their community being destroyed and people were crying at night," remembers Bruce Netter. "It was nothing but tents, but it was theirs."

Confusion prevailed. "It was just like a time bomb," resident Nelson Brown recalls. "It was getting hotter and hotter. Tempers were flaring, people were getting into fights." Bogus rumors abounded: that Netter had embezzled money, that Netter was shooting cocaine, that the county had no liability insurance. Seventy new families who had been approved for admission were summarily turned away. A marriage and family therapist, a child psychologist, and a nurse midwife, all of whom were scheduled to begin regular programs at the encampment, were left hanging.

As the physical and social fabric came undone, the administrative structure also disintegrated. Menendez removed the walkie-talkies from the site, a move site managers say could have endangered residents' lives. Menendez, with the help of a county employee, broke into the locked office of Archdiocesan employee Beth von Werne, director of social services; he took all the case files and confidential records. Menendez says he needed the files for information that would expedite the moving of residents into FEMA trailers. He claims he had tried for hours to contact Von Werne, who was apparently off-site at the time. Regardless, he argues, the files were county property and he was their ultimate custodian.

"We realized there was going to be a change of balance and we weren't going to have the impact," says Margie Netter about the sense of doom that befell the tent city. "We started to feel less enthusiasm and more frustration, and that began to impact on the families."

"It was like a veil hanging over the place," Sucheila Singh recalls. "It was very, very difficult and sad to see what would happen."

Narrow asphalt roads with irrelevant names like Wagon Wheel, Candle Wick, and Quilting Bee crisscross the treeless Royal Colonial Mobile Home Estates, leading to Singh's newest temporary shelter, a simply furnished two-bedroom FEMA trailer at the back of the dreary lot. She and her family have their own shower now, and their roof doesn't leak. Still, Singh bemoans the loss of the tent city's incipient community. After a month here, she still doesn't know her next-door neighbors.

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