Idiot Wind

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.)

Despite what Lee Martin describes as "a fairly staggering number" of people affected by the amnesty, very few seem to know of its existence. "We haven't been deluged yet," he acknowledges. "If [homeowners] choose not to avail themselves of the opportunity, it's basically their fault." Yet if Susan Alberti's experience is any indication, even those who heed the warning could be in for major hassles.

At the end of 1993 the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) posted a notice on Alberti's front door demanding that she place at least two openings in the crawl space beneath her newly elevated home to allow for the entry and exit of flood waters. Alberti contacted Craig Lewis in Sarasota. He told her the county had approved the original plans without mentioning a need for openings and that she shouldn't worry. But when DERM threatened to fine her $500 per day, she did begin to worry.

She wrote to the agency asking for more time to comply because she couldn't afford to have the work done. Then, during a visit to the house, a DERM inspector happened to notice that Alberti's air-conditioner installer had failed to raise the air compressor to the same level as the house, a requirement for all utility connections. On a subsequent visit, she says, an inspector told her she wouldn't have to elevate the air conditioner if she proceeded promptly with construction of the openings in the crawl space. Alberti contacted a friend who completed the work for her.

In August 1996 Alberti went to building and zoning to see what was needed to resolve all outstanding problems. A clerk quoted her a price of $800 just to reactivate the permits. Upon hearing the amount, the financially strapped and now single mother postponed her inquiries. In the spring of 1997, tired of big-city hassles, she decided to sell the house and move to a small town in North Carolina she had enjoyed on a previous visit. Yet she soon found that her escape from South Florida depended on gaining final approval for her permits. "By law I have to disclose all this nonsense to a buyer," she says. "Who is going to buy these problems?"

She returned to building and zoning several months later and sat down with an inspector who told her she shouldn't be penalized because her contractor hadn't called for final inspections. She left the county office elated, believing the official would arrange for inspections after checking with his supervisor. After several weeks, she called the inspector, who informed her the county could not make an exception in her case.

Dismayed, she made yet another appointment with county officials and paid $500 to reopen her permits. The price included $75 to change her contractor from Craig Lewis to herself. In addition, the change required that she sign a "hold-harmless" agreement releasing both her contractor and the county from liability. "They wouldn't give me permits until I signed it," she says.

Once her permits were reopened, Alberti discovered that in addition to her problem with the air compressor, the county also demanded drawings of her roof trusses and floor beams -- without them no final inspection could take place. But the required drawings were not to be found among the reams of documents she'd been keeping; worse, her contractor had left Sarasota without a forwarding address. Her alternative to providing the original drawings was to hire an engineer -- at a cost of several thousand dollars -- to produce new ones. So she set out in search of her missing contractor.

Alberti contacted one of Lewis's co-workers, whose wife suggested she call the church Lewis had attended in Sarasota. She telephoned the minister, who told her Lewis now lived in California; he would relay a message. Soon Lewis called with the bad news that he didn't remember exactly who made the trusses. He told her to consult with his brother. After many more calls, she miraculously tracked down the truss manufacturer, which searched its records and found the drawings.

But when Alberti returned to the county, precious plans in hand, she was told that the truss company had not received required county certification. (The county approves only trusses from designated companies who pay a fee, submit to a lab test, a site visit, and a structural evaluation.) Alberti's trusses were made by Stark Truss in Sarasota, one of the largest truss manufacturers in the nation. "We don't ship to Dade County, although we did a few scattered jobs during the hurricane," says Mark Skogen, Stark plant manager. "I'm happy to give them any information they want, but it seems to be a case where the sentence is perfect but they want all the i's dotted and all the t's crossed." (The truss conundrum remains unsettled.)  

At a time when the Department of Planning, Development, and Regulations is under criminal investigation by the Dade State Attorney's Office for alleged fraud, Alberti can't help but marvel that if she had lied like some of her neighbors, none of this would have happened. "I did the right thing and now I am being penalized," she complains. "How can you play like that? Stamp these plans approved, issue a permit, and now say, 'It's not right.'"

County officials can only shrug. "A lot of homes are paying the price of complying," admits division chief Martin. The building supervisor then waxes philosophical: "In a larger sense, it's a problem with society in general -- people who don't play by the rules."

Alberti argues that the limited equity she has accrued in her house does not merit paying exorbitant fees to the county in order to have her permits approved. Deprived by the agreement she signed of the right to sue, Alberti says her only alternative now is to declare bankruptcy. Doing so, however, would destroy her good credit rating.

Alberti sits in her dream home turned nightmare, a pile of county permits, letters, and architectural drawings spread over her kitchen table. She wonders aloud how many other hurricane victims might be in a similar situation but are unaware of it. She then sighs: "Every hurricane season I find myself hoping that one will come and just take this whole place away.

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