The Little Museum That Couldn't

A news photographer captured the image: Harry S Truman hoisting a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune dated November 4, 1948. The headline proclaims Thomas Dewey the winner in a close presidential dogfight, but the press guessed wrong -- late returns squeaked Truman into a second term. In the photo, the re-elected commander-in-chief grins triumphantly from the back platform of his bulletproof caboose.

Truman's custom-made Pullman railroad car was used by three other presidents, and later became Dade County's first federally designated national historic landmark. These days it slowly molders in a field near SW 152nd Street, along with dozens of other relics from the age of steam locomotion. A family of mice has taken up residence in one. Plastic tarps shroud another, to keep the rain out.

Four years after Hurricane Andrew hammered South Dade, the nonprofit Gold Coast Railroad Museum still doesn't have a roof to replace the one that blew away on August 24, 1992. For all practical purposes, the museum is closed to the public, despite the fact that U.S. taxpayers have shelled out $1.3 million since the storm to rebuild the 42,000-square-foot complex.

Instead of a new museum, passersby find what one distraught train buff calls "Stonehenge II," a skeletal, rectangular pavilion made of massive concrete arches. A big pile of steel roof trusses reaches up to the sky, awaiting the unlikely return of a construction contractor who halted work in September and is owed more than $300,000.

"In private business you'd be shot for doing this," says architect Carleton Decker, referring to the actions of state and federal officials who initially promised to rebuild the museum, but lately have changed their minds and refused to come through with $700,000 in additional grants necessary to complete the project.

"The individuals making the decisions at the state and federal level have been so preoccupied with their own self interest that they've completely lost sight of the consequences of their actions," says Thomas Nagy, a consultant hired by the museum. "They've lost sight of the end goal of recovering from the disaster and serving the community."

Before Hurricane Andrew, the Gold Coast Railroad Museum did business out of an old wooden railroad depot and displayed its collection of train cars and locomotives beneath a giant Quonset shed. After the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency contacted museum director Connie Greer. "It seemed like FEMA had come to our rescue," Greer recalls. "We had insurance, but it didn't begin to cover the damage."

After surveying the splintered depot, the collapsed train shed, and the toppled-over railroad cars, FEMA officials issued a series of damage survey reports projecting what they thought it would cost to rebuild the museum complex: $1,015,504. Rather than simply replace the flimsy, open-air train shed, government bureaucrats required a sturdy concrete structure -- hence the high price tag.

Eventually, after a series of meetings and discussions, representatives of the state Division of Emergency Management approved building plans drawn up by Decker.

Delays occurred when state officials decided the new train shed should have gigantic roll-up hurricane shutters on each of 30 arched entrances. Because no such storm doors had ever been manufactured, it was hard to gauge what they might cost, or how to go about getting construction permits for them. The heavy hurricane doors required re-engineering the concrete walls to make the walls stronger still. FEMA agreed to kick in another $343,000 for this so-called mitigation work intended to protect the building from future hurricanes.

Finally, in November 1995, the museum signed a contract with Harrison Construction Corp. to begin work on the $1.3 million project.

But while the museum haggled with officials about the design of the new building, the true costs of creating it were on the rise. In the aftermath of the hurricane, county building codes came to require more stringent (and expensive) construction, and state law also changed. For example, Florida passed its "potty parity" law in an effort to provide equal amenities for men and women, requiring the museum unexpectedly to triple the number of planned toilets. "A lot of these costs were not known to the museum until after it went through the permitting process, and it is those costs that FEMA now says it will not pay," Decker notes.

Charlotte Willis, project manager for Harrison Construction, says she attended a meeting with state officials in September 1995 and felt reassured that the federal government would reimburse the museum for any cost overruns associated with building code changes. "They certainly led us to believe that FEMA would approve these additional monies," she recalls. "They said the costs looked like they were in line."

Throughout 1995 and early 1996, the museum's board members continued submitting cost overrun figures to state officials. At a meeting this past September, they say they discovered to their amazement that the state had failed to inform FEMA of the additional costs. "It came as a shock to the federal government, and consequently they've taken a hard line about it," Decker notes.

Shirley Collins, the governor's representative for Hurricane Andrew claims, says she's sympathetic to the museum's plight, and denies that the state made a mess of the project by failing to communicate effectively with FEMA. If anything, she says, FEMA is at fault for flip-flopping. "From day one, FEMA has been here," Collins says. "If the price has escalated to the point where it's unacceptable, FEMA should have been aware of it right away. So why now in midstream do they change their minds? I agree that the [museum] is caught between a rock and a hard place."

A meeting last Thursday between museum representatives and state and federal officials failed to resolve the question of whether FEMA will or should complete the project. "We may have to elevate this matter to Washington at this point," Collins says. "We have no resolution here."

David Frankle, FEMA's representative at the meeting, declined to discuss in detail how the agency arrived at its current position, but he offered an analogy: "Let's say you had a Volkswagen that was destroyed in the storm, and you came to me and wanted a Cadillac. I'm not going to buy you a Cadillac, and where I am in this situation is that I need a basis for understanding what a new Volkswagen should cost. Short of being able to clearly determine that, we have no other choice but to deny.


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