(Aug. 23) HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In the howling, predawn hours of Aug. 24, 1992, Pal Brooks lost three-quarters of his personal net worth in the span of an hour. The truly extraordinary part of it was this: It could have been worse.

Sustained winds exceeding 150 mph ripped across the southern tip of the Florida peninsula on that horrendous morning a decade ago, and it forever changed the lives of thousands of people. Shortly before daybreak, Hurricane Andrew bore down on Homestead, one of the most unique fruit and vegetable production areas in the U.S. That it tore through with lightening speed rather than lingering probably saved many lives and spared further damage.

Ten years later, the repercussions persist.

“I’d been through a lot of weather events, and I’d seen substantial losses,” said Brooks, president of Homestead-based Brooks Tropicals Inc. “But, in hindsight, it was astonishing that I could lose, in one hour, so much of what I’d spent 30 years in business building up.”

Florida’s lime industry — indeed, practically the entire U.S. lime industry — was hardest hit. Brooks and others farmed the fruit in the relatively small area south of Miami and had weathered hurricanes before. They figured limes being a stable crop, that Andrew would defoliate the trees and disrupt production for perhaps six or seven months.

“When I drove to work that morning, there were no trees in the ground,” Brooks said. “That was the single largest shock of the day.”

It had been 32 years since a major hurricane pummeled the region. They didn’t know it at the time, but Florida lime growers had gradually switched over to rootstock that was incapable of holding trees in the ground with winds exceeding 100 mph.

Growers replanted lime trees and were slowly seeing production return as the trees began maturing through the mid- to late 1990s. Then citrus canker hit the region and effectively wiped out the industry once again.

Brooks said he did $16 million in lime business in 1999, $6.5 million in 2000, $4 million in 2001 and will do about $1 million this year. “And I think we’re out of the lime business after this year,” he said.

But in Andrew’s wake, opportunities have arisen. Florida’s green-skin avocado industry, also centered around Homestead, has shrunk to a more economically sustainable level, Brooks said. And many carambola groves have been moved to Pine Island, near Fort Myers, and are seeing better production there.

Brooks has rebuilt his company around another core product, papaya, which is grown in Belize. Today, in fact, he employs more people in that country than in Florida.

Others never recovered from Andrew. Herbert Yamamura saw his Princeton-based Limeco Inc., in business since 1965, suffer through cash-flow problems and a declining credit rating as he waited for his 400 acres of replanted limes to mature after the hurricane. After canker took all but 20 acres of them two years ago, the company was forced to close its doors.

In its place is New Limeco LLC, a company backed by Alcides Acosta, a major avocado and tropical fruit grower.

Although Homestead growers have faced a plethora of challenges and setbacks over the years, Andrew ranks as a turning point in many ways, said Bill Schaefer, who was Brooks’ marketing director in 1992 and is now president of C-Brand Tropicals Inc., Goulds, Fla.

“I think agriculture in Homestead has been fighting an uphill battle for as long as I can remember, and I started with Brooks in 1978,” Schaefer said. “Between the federal government, NAFTA, local government, urbanization ... it just seemed like there was always a negative atmosphere the minute you stepped out of the field.

All of these things have gone on, and the hurricane was one more nail in the coffin. Andrew was just a catalyst that sped up a lot of things.”

Take Florida’s green mangoes, for instance. Once a thriving industry, by the early 1990s they were on their way out, no longer able to compete with the huge volumes of Mexican mangoes pouring into the U.S.

“We recognized that,” Schaefer said, “and the hurricane kind of finished that off early.”

But perhaps the most lasting impression Andrew has left 10 years later is more personal. Schaefer, for one, suffered $75,000 of damage to his house and remembers being without electricity for weeks, unable to completely restore his home for more than a year.

“It just changed your whole life,” he said. “It’s like the whole 9/11 deal. What do you say about it? It’s had an unbelievable, continuing ripple effect. To this day, you cannot talk to somebody for any length of time without it coming up. It changed everybody’s outlook on life, for better or worse.”
The immediate trauma of Aug. 24, 1992, remains vivid in the minds of many who were left stranded in Andrew’s path.

“When I walked out of the house at daybreak, the first thing I thought of were the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” said Fred Moore, a salesman with Homestead Pole Bean Cooperative Inc. at the time and now a salesman with Five Bros. Produce Inc., Homestead. “There wasn’t a tree standing with a top on it. You didn’t hear one sound, not one bird.

“You’ll never forget it if you were in it.”

Moore said he was without power after Andrew for more than 10 weeks, without a telephone for 16 weeks. He said he was unusually thrilled to find working phones when he went to the Produce Marketing Association’s convention in 1992.

But the Homestead region’s winter vegetable crops were largely spared by Andrew. Most of them weren’t planted yet, Moore said, and physical damage to structures such as the Florida City State Farmers Market, though considerable, was quickly repaired.

The harvest of vegetable crops was delayed only slightly that year, Moore said. “We got started around Nov. 15, maybe 15 days behind schedule. In the long run, for beans and row crops, (Andrew) probably prolonged their life.”

That’s because the hurricane put a sudden halt to the plans of developers moving ever southward from the Miami metropolitan area, Moore said. Homestead lost thousands upon thousands of residents, many of them retirees living close to Homestead’s Air Force base. When it closed after the hurricane, the area’s infrastructure went through a vacuum as residents moved north to Broward County and elsewhere.

Land went undeveloped for years, and some tropical fruit growers rented their acreage to vegetable growers rather than replant their trees. Rent prices fell.

“We were losing land to urbanization,” Moore said. “Then it all stopped. Now we’re back to where we were. They’re building homes and apartments around here like crazy.”