In the wake of Wilma, we long to shout We Will Rebuild
By Michael Lewis
As we overcome Hurricane Wilma's misery, let's pause to draw wisdom from the aftermath of Andrew, the 1992 hurricane that crushed South Miami-Dade, left thousands homeless and became our yardstick for gauging disasters.
We averted widespread despair then and got a sense of order and hope from We Will Rebuild, a group whose legacy aids Miami-Dade to this day.
Immediately after the storm, President George H. Bush visited Florida twice. Within days, he named retired Knight Ridder Chairman Alvah Chapman to head a private-sector effort, We Will Rebuild, that was to restore this community's economy.
Mr. Chapman then turned to a private business and civic organization, dubbed the Non-Group because, lacking strong government, its 40 or so members operated as a self-appointed leadership for the county. It became the core of We Will Rebuild.
The choice of We Will Rebuild members was not democratic - decisions were top-down. There were no elections. It was not a politically correct organization by composition. And it was run by fiat.
But it worked, swiftly and well.
Within days, nearly 110 members met to set goals and plans to restore Miami-Dade. As federal, state and local governments worked on day-to-day problems of shelter, food, water, health and debris-clearing, We Will Rebuild in parallel rolled up its collective sleeves for long-term recovery.
Leaders named former county manager Ray Goode president and CEO and found a home in IBM's Coral Gables offices.
The 17 committees had defined tasks. They targeted federal funding, state funding, private funding, housing, health, social services, innovations, planning and assessment, agriculture, business, communications, a national advisory group and more.
A lesson in getting things done: The leader of an institution, not a No. 2, headed each committee - and each institution was powerful. Committee heads included three university presidents; the chairmen of Knight Ridder, Ryder Systems, Eagle Brands and H.J. Ross Associates; a bank president; and the president of the county's economic development group, the Beacon Council.
They brought clout and cash to the table. When committee heads called, people listened. And though each ran a powerful outside organization, all worked under Mr. Chapman and Mr. Goode in We Will Rebuild.
Thus the second lesson: Everyone can't be in charge. To make recovery work, powerful leaders in their own right had to report to someone else.
Six weeks after the Aug. 24 hurricane cut an 18-mile-wide swath through South Dade, We Will Rebuild had collected $20 million.
One of its first efforts was to assess damage to houses of worship in South Dade. Its team found 255 south of Kendall Drive and visited each to assess needs. It then granted $500,000 to five that Andrew destroyed.
Over its first two years, We Will Rebuild made 100 such grants totaling $22.9 million - and its foundation still had $3.3 million in pledges to collect and spend.
The group ultimately grew to 140, as over time, it yielded to calls for inclusion of interests that felt left out of the process. The goal was to supercharge moribund South Dade within a year, but that Herculean task took far longer - more than two years - and the team ultimately gave way to a We Will Rebuild Foundation.
The foundation's final act, in 1995, was to give its remaining $1 million to Florida International University to found and endow the International Center for Hurricane Damage Research and Mitigation - which now functions as the International Hurricane Center.
Nothing like We Will Rebuild exists in the wake of Hurricane Wilma. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce announced before the storm its Preparing Greater Miami initiative chaired by Armando Codina, CEO of the Codina Group, to gear Miami to deal with major disasters. But the chamber says that forward-thinking initiative won't begin until January.
That leaves a vacuum in long-term recovery, with no Alvah Chapman or Non-Group or major local corporations or We Will Rebuild ready to step in to complement day-to-day governmental efforts. And while Wilma is not Andrew, it has buffeted every resident of South Florida.
We Will Rebuild planned long-term efforts, put someone in charge and offered hope for thousands of the homeless and helpless.
Government did not run We Will Rebuild. Government did not staff We Will Rebuild. But government and We Will Rebuild worked in tandem to speed recovery while aiding and comforting hurricane victims.
Let's hope that Preparing Greater Miami takes note of what we don't have in the wake of Wilma so that in our next hour of disaster, we can say as a community, rather than just individually, that We Will Rebuild.