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Lori Marcus feared for her life during the harrowing night of Hurricane Andrew when she and her family spun past windows and doors that were exploding as if they were hit by grenades and hid in a bathroom, panicked that candles in the kitchen would burn the house down. Then the popcorn ceiling collapsed, leaving whatever furniture that was not sucked out into the yard coated in soggy white kernels.
Survivor’s relief turned to victim’s anger. Marcus and her neighbors soon realized that their neighborhood, christened with the idyllic name of Country Walk, was a massacre of decapitated houses while mere blocks away the damage was minor, roofs intact.
“Around here we had second stories sheared off and clothes hanging in trees,” Marcus said Friday as she prepared her house for Hurricane Irma’s projected Sunday landfall. “Then we looked at the aerial photos, and the difference between us and the adjacent communities was dramatic. They only lost a few tiles and shingles.”
Country Walk, built by Walt Disney World Corp.’s Arvida development company, became synonymous with shoddy construction in the South Florida suburbs that beckoned buyers with affordable pieces of paradise. Autopsies of the skeletal structures revealed that cheap shortcuts, especially on roofs, caused the entire community to blow away like a house of cards. Ninety-five percent of the 1,700 homes were destroyed when Category 5 Andrew punched through southwest Miami-Dade County in 1992.
“It was a perfect storm of incompetence and deceit,” said Eugenio Santiago, chief building officer for Key Biscayne and a structural engineer who helped investigate what went wrong at Country Walk.
Like Marcus, who lives on Southwest 144th Court in the Robin’s Run East subdivision, Hamira Rav Riverol, who lives in Rooster’s Ridge, is the only person on his block who rebuilt and stayed in Country Walk. Most residents collected their insurance money and moved north or out of state.
Riverol was one of three lead plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against Arvida, which led to a small settlement of $10,000 (about $7,500 after attorneys’ fees) per homeowner. For him, the silver lining of the ordeal was how Country Walk became a catalyst for reform of the South Florida building code, considered the toughest in the nation today. Stringent regulations enforced since Andrew provide confidence that the thousands of houses and condo towers built in the boom times of the last 20 years will withstand Irma’s winds and storm surge.
“The builders did flimsy work. They knew it but nobody could tell because it looked so pretty, like New England homes,” Riverol said. “I stood up to this giant and said, ‘You did the wrong thing. You screwed us over.’”
In court papers, Arvida and Disney denied responsibility for construction defects.
Riverol, sweating in front of the sky blue house where he’s been busy putting up accordion shutters, still gets upset when he recalls Aug. 24, 1992 — the night he, his late wife, their 3-month-old baby boy and two Yorkies cowered in the bathtub as their second floor ripped away and the ceiling collapsed on top of them.
“I was once in a nose-diving airplane hit by lightning with the cockpit door blown open and passengers screaming — and I was more scared during Andrew,” said Riverol, an aircraft inspector. “I had to relive that every time I gave a deposition.”
The wood frame houses on his block were demolished. Santiago said a major defect was gable ends that were not braced or connected to roofs, plus inadequacies with trusses, sheathing, strapping and tie beams. Substandard walls toppled. Underpaid inspectors “were just doing drive-bys,” he said. “The plans were signed and sealed and the builders got them through without having anybody check the structural calculations. That review is required now.”
Riverol rebuilt his house into a fortress of cinder blocks, steel and poured concrete.
“This was home,” he said. “We didn’t want to leave.”
Meander down Country Walk Drive and you see the logo of a barefoot Huck Finn-like lad fishing with his puppy. White fences, plentiful trees and signs for Stoneybrook and Turtle Creek evoke a pastoral retreat.
But the development west of Zoo Miami became infamous during the child abuse trial of Frank and Ileana Fuster, owners of Country Walk Babysitting Service. Prosecuted by Janet Reno, Frank was found guilty in 1985 on 14 counts and sentenced to life in prison. The lurid details of the controversial case drew wide publicity.
Then came Andrew, and Country Walk was in the news again, brand name for unscrupulous developers and swindled homeowners.
“I know, I know — a lot of people have a negative association with Country Walk, and I won’t even mention Frank Fuster,” Marcus said, cringing. “Everyone thought I was insane for staying and now with Irma coming they think I’m really insane. But I love this place. It’s friendly, safe, green, quiet. I can hear the crickets and frogs at night. My neighbors are sweet and caring. I don’t feel like I’m in Miami.”
But rebuilding from the studs after Andrew was an exhausting 14-month process. She dreads a wipeout of trees and foliage like last time, when both their cars were flooded and totaled.
“I don’t know if I can deal with a direct hit again because I’m 25 years older and it took a long time to recover — physically, emotionally and financially,” said Marcus, whose house was three-quarters finished in 1993 when the cocaine-addicted contractor ran off with their money.
“We’re more prepared than we were for Andrew, when we thought we’d have a neighborhood hurricane party,” said Marcus, a costume designer and textile artist. “I don’t regret our decision to stay and we’d like to think our beautiful, sturdier house will hold up. I’m a believer in karma so I’m thinking, ‘Really, why did I deserve this karma?’”
Builder Dan Whiteman said the county code in 1992 was insufficient to cope with Andrew’s 165 mph winds. He thins Country Walk served an essential purpose.
“Contractors, architects, engineers, inspectors, municipalities — we all had a wake-up call because of Andrew,” said Whiteman, vice chair of Coastal Construction, who was on a University of Florida team that investigated Andrew damage in Miami-Dade. “As a result our code is the toughest anywhere, no doubt about it. I think we’ll be OK this time, although there is no getting around the major damage if it is a Category 5.”
Meteorologist Bryan Norcross, who lives in Miami Beach, is also optimistic.
“We should not expect the wholesale building failure we saw with Andrew,” he said. “We’ve tested every component of the modern house — every shingle, every door, every window. Miami-Dade’s standard is the standard of the world.”
But Santiago is concerned that the South Florida code, which was absorbed into the state code in 2001, has been weakened in recent years. For example, a requirement that balcony guardrails be 42 inches high was reduced to 36 inches.
“Builders and contractors complained some elements were too strict,” said Santiago, who was hired as an expert by the Miami Herald during a post-Andrew review of local construction practices. “Money talks. It’s a culture we’re still fighting.
“I look at some flimsy buildings downtown and I’m not sure if they will wave back and forth.”
Still, he is confident of the tougher requirements for wind load, reinforcement and impact windows and doors.
“We found bad design everywhere,” Santiago said. “Today in Dade every municipality must have a registered structural engineer doing reviews.
“I don’t think we’ll go back to what happened in Homestead, Naranja Lakes and Country Walk. But the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see.”
The Seijo family moved into a rebuilt Country Walk house in 2000.
“We figured, what are the odds that a hurricane as bad as Andrew will hit twice?”” Elvira Seijo said as her husband hammered plywood over their windows. “Now with Irma coming, I’m a nervous wreck. We’re wondering, what is this place, is it cursed, was it built over an Indian burial ground or something?”