The Last Frontier

When authorities pledged to reflood the Everglades, they tried to accommodate residents of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area in Southwest Dade. They're still trying.

The meeting began smoothly, as Estus Whitfield introduced the committee members and cordially welcomed the residents in his pleasant North Florida drawl. He then brought forward DERM code-enforcement officer Robert Karafel, who launched into an overview of the area, ticking off statistics regarding the total assessed value of the land and the number of illegal structures on it. The audience listened attentively as a county employee translated into Spanish.

But the committee members couldn't possibly have believed the peace would last. Less than an hour into the proceedings, as Karafel was patiently answering a resident's question about his data, a heavyset bearded man barked, "Do you suppose that if you hadn't denied them the legal right to build on their land in 1981, don't you suppose there would be a bigger tax base?"

Whoops and applause resounded throughout the room.
Karafel forced a smile as Whitfield called for calm. "Hold on, hold on!" his voice rose above the grumbling. "You're going to have to ask these sorts of questions at a later date." But the audience had already had enough; the remainder of Karafel's discourse and the ensuing presentations by other officials were marked by occasional bursts of bilingual heckling and derisive laughter.

The dam of discontent burst about an hour later, during an explanation of the flow-way/buffer alternative. Madeleine Fortin raised her hand and asked the committee why the 812 Square Mile Area had to sacrifice at least ten percent of its land for the project. Why couldn't Everglades National Park land be used, she asked?

The question was met by committee members with blank stares and several seconds of uneasy silence. Finally Whitfield turned to another part of the audience and inquired pointedly, "Was there another question over here?"

The room erupted. "This is nothing but a PR meeting! That's all you do: a PR meeting!" yelled one man wearing a blue windbreaker. "It's all bullshit," growled homeowners' association president Rafael Herrera, clutching a stack of documents and heading for the door. "Let's move out," he commanded in the voice of a general exhorting his troops. He and the man in the windbreaker stormed away, followed by a mass of others. The committee members sat silently.

A woman stood and said she'd been living on 217th Avenue for fifteen years, had raised her family there, built and rebuilt her home. During that time, she noted, she'd never experienced flooding that compared to the current conditions. "The water has been kept there because the canals to the south of there have been shut!" she hollered, eliciting cries of agreement from others.

"Ma'am!" Whitfield interjected. "We can't deal with these kinds of specific questions right now."

"Well," the woman shot back, "this is my home!"
The last hour was devoted to public comment no less rancorous, as resident after resident took a seat before a microphone only feet away from the committee members at the front of the room and defiantly denounced the government. "We sit here and can't help but feel like Bugs Bunny," Jill Hoog said when her turn came. "We've been offered the carrot of flood control before, but it's always turned into mitigation. What faith in government should we have that it will be addressed? Either buy us out or get us flood protection."

"I built my house," stated Lorraine Valladares, a math and computer-sciences teacher who has lived in the 812 Square Mile Area for fourteen years. "This is the only house my husband, who is a Cuban, has. He had one in Cuba, but they took that. So are you going to take this one?"

"There's no way anybody can buy me out," vowed long-time resident Bertha Valdez. "This is my home. I have no other choice. So maybe you'll see me in jail."

Julia Yapell, who owns a horse ranch, declared her intention to pay taxes into a special escrow account until the issue is resolved. "You either buy us out so we can go live a normal life somewhere else, or we're going to take government into our own hands," she warned. "We're going to fill [our properties] as much as we like, continue to fix our roads, and maybe we'll just all get together and not pay our taxes."

The Water Management District's Sam Poole tried to be conciliatory. "I think all of us can understand the situation you've been in," he told the hundred or so residents who stuck around till the end. "You deserve an answer as soon as possible."

But outside the meeting room, the citizens were anything but mollified. "Every one of them will have to pay one day," Rafael Herrera snarled. "You ask what the government does? They're a bunch of liars!"

"Have you ever seen such a farce in your whole life?" added Bonni Bensch, tossing a wad of gum around in her mouth. "They won't answer one question asked. They don't want to commit to anything, because it was on the record."

Later, after the last angry stragglers had gone home, Poole expressed sympathy for the residents' frustrations. "These people have been bounced around," noted Poole, who was a Dade County planner in the late Seventies. "They have no faith in the government. Many of them were clearly sold property that the land sellers told them had flood protection. It was not a representation by any government officials," he added.

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