By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Hurricane Andrew assaulted Susan Alberti's Saga Bay neighborhood with shattering winds and a twelve-foot storm surge. When she and her husband Louis returned to their home, east of Cutler Ridge off Old Cutler Road, they found water lines on the walls higher than their two young children's heads, carpets caked in mud, and dead fish strewn about the house. Little did Alberti know then that more than five years later she would still be suffering the storm's effects, though they would be compounded by a manmade calamity -- the Miami-Dade County bureaucracy.
The couple purchased their dream home in the quiet neighborhood just nine months before the storm. Despite the area's flood-prone reputation, which had earned it the sobriquet Soggy Bay, a day of heavy rains during their purchase period did not harm the house, and the deal was sealed.
After the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decreed that property owners with more than 50 percent damage at homesites below the federal flood level would be required, upon rebuilding, to elevate their homes. If enough people failed to comply, the area would be ineligible for essential federal flood-insurance subsidies.
Many saw the destruction Andrew left behind as confirmation that the initial planning of Saga Bay did not receive proper county oversight. (All homes in Saga Bay were built four feet below the federally designated flood-plain level.)
"The game was to stay under 50 percent," recalls Alberti. "Contractors would provide two estimates: one below 50 percent to give to the county and another over 50 percent to give to the insurance company." In fact, few people elevated their rebuilt homes. Such deception came as no surprise to the New York native. She sees it every day in her job as an investigator for the fraud division of the Florida Department of Insurance.
In the hurricane's wake, Alberti and her investigator colleagues scrutinized homes whose owners had poured tea on the walls to simulate storm damage, and other owners who claimed losses to property far in excess of anything their salaries would have allowed. Although her neighbors might be able to get away with deceit, she knew she couldn't -- and wouldn't try. "I'm a police officer," she says. "I wasn't going to do that. I would have been the first one to get caught."
In the chaotic weeks after Andrew, contractors walked the streets of Saga Bay like prostitutes trolling for johns. Alberti asked a fireman friend who dabbled in carpentry to look at her house, but a gaping hole in the roof, mold growing in the walls, and the prospect of elevating the entire structure proved too complicated for him. Finally she settled on a state-licensed contractor from Sarasota named Craig Lewis, who had set up shop in an abandoned building in the neighborhood. Nearly a year passed, however, before reconstruction began.
In November 1993 Alberti's insurance company refused to continue paying for the small apartment the family had rented, so they moved into her mother's home as she pressured the contractor to finish. Increasingly Alberti found herself supervising the construction project in addition to working and raising two children. "After a while it was so emotionally overwhelming I couldn't make decisions," she recalls. "I would go to the lighting store and walk in circles for hours." The couple's marriage began to disintegrate under the strain.
County bureaucrats didn't make it any easier when they told her Lewis's plans for the front porch required a special variance because it would extend a few feet closer to the curb than zoning allowed. Alberti went to see county officials to complain that the house's dimensions were not going to change and that they were exactly the same as every similar home in the area. Her protests did not move the bureaucrats; even if the original developer had been allowed to flout zoning regulations, she would not be granted that luxury.
So in the midst of the post-hurricane frenzy, she found herself forced to track down neighboring property owners (some of whom had become difficult to locate) to obtain their approval for the variance. "That's when I knew something was wrong," she says. "They were fighting over a couple of feet on a front porch."
Then, just as the construction job was drawing to a close, her contractor, Craig Lewis, abandoned the work and returned to Sarasota without receiving final inspections or approvals of the permits. Alberti hired a private inspector to review Lewis's work; it looked fine.
Contractors who walked off hurricane-reconstruction jobs were common, according to county officials. "Lots of guys did that," says Lee Martin, permit services division chief for the Department of Planning, Development, and Regulations (which used to be called the building and zoning department). "If they got paid, they split town." One result: Approximately 70,000 building permits remain open -- meaning they have not received final inspections as required by law.
Under a county ordinance that took effect this past July, property owners with open permits as far back as 1957 have been granted amnesty until the end of 1998, by which time they must have passed inspection or they will face county-imposed fines. (The county commission has the option of extending the amnesty for another 24 months.)