Three days after Andrew, an official's bluntness stirred Washington into action.
By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002
Three days after Hurricane Andrew struck, thousands of people in south Dade County were desperate for food and water. They swarmed the few relief trucks that arrived, but many left empty-handed.
Andrew had been the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history and the federal government was nowhere in sight.
Then Kate Hale spoke up.
"Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?" Dade's emergency management director asked at a news conference, her voice filled with exasperation. "They keep saying we're going to get supplies. For God's sake, where are they?"
Within hours, the feds sprang into action. President Bush ordered the Army to send mobile kitchens and build a massive tent city.
Hale became a folk hero. She was hugged by strangers in Winn-Dixie. There was talk of movie and book deals.
But her celebrity soon faded. She lost her job, suffered health problems, struggled financially and moved to Washington to start over.
Today, she is back in Miami with a new job and an upbeat attitude. Besides running a mental health association, Hale has an unusual goal -- selling a stain remover she invented. She calls it "Mom's Miracle" and is seeking a patent.
The words Hale spoke after the storm still echo among disaster planners around the nation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, ridiculed for its slow response to Andrew, has been reorganized and now wins praise for its work.
FEMA talks more frequently with state and local officials, it has streamlined the system for people to apply for aid and the agency has a state of the art command center.
It seems the cavalry is ready now.
Hale and her colleagues were stunned by the sluggish federal response.
Virtually every neighborhood south of Kendall looked as if a nuclear bomb had exploded. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles sent the National Guard, but there weren't enough troops. The federal government was being bureaucratic.
It was like a game of Go Fish, recalls Michelle Baker, one of Hale's deputies. The feds would not say what help they could provide. The county had to ask first -- Do you have any kitchens? Do you have any tents? -- and only then would the feds respond.
"You had to know what to ask for," says Baker, now the emergency director in Pasco County. "Sometimes you don't know what is available."
Three days after the storm, Hale and other top county officials met to discuss the dire situation. There were reports of desperate mothers dipping baby bottles in mud puddles. Residents sat in the wreckage of their homes holding shotguns to ward off looters. Police warned of violence unless food and shelter arrived.
The officials agreed Hale would make a loud complaint at a news conference.
"I figured the game plan was "Let Kate do it and if anybody gets offended we will fire her,' " she recalls.
She warned her staff. "I just want you to know that it's been nice working with you," she told them.
At a nationally televised news conference a few hours later, Hale was blunt:
"Dade County is getting caught in the middle of something," she said, referring to the bureaucratic squabbles between state and federal officials. "Quit playing like a bunch of kids."
Her words prompted an immediate response. "Help is on the way," President Bush said.
Mobile kitchens and tents arrived in two days. "It was like somebody turned on the tap," says Baker.
Hale used her new clout to persuade the Florida Legislature to pass a law increasing state and local disaster efforts. She gave speeches around the country, negotiated a movie deal and planned a book.
But three years later she lost her job.
Hale, a Michigan native, had moved to Miami for the weather and gradually rose through the ranks in county government. The woman who counts Mother Teresa as one of her heroes says government work was a good fit.
"I grew up in the '60s, when government service was a noble calling," she says. "I'm Irish for God's sake -- to serve is good. That's what you do with your life."
But by 1995, she had fallen out of favor with some county officials. They said she mismanaged the department and had not finished an important hurricane plan. Hale says she was the victim of a "witch hunt" because she opposed a plan to merge her office with the fire department. She had requested a medical leave of absence, but they eliminated her job first.
David Bilodeau, the Pinellas County emergency director, says Hale did "an extraordinary effort against all odds" and did not deserve to lose her job. But he says it's typical for local politicos to fire the emergency manager after a disaster. They need someone to blame.
Still, Hale was not "one of those warm, fuzzy managers," Bilodeau says, and was better suited for a planning job at the state or federal level.
Hale, who was divorced before Andrew, says the next few years were very difficult. She was in poor health, struggled financially and more than two dozen close friends and relatives died in the 1990s.
"Every morning I woke up, I was surprised. I wasn't expecting to live," she recalls. The movie deal fizzled and she delayed writing the book.
Hale, now 51, got tired of being a Miami celebrity and moved to Washington.
She became head of the National Women's Political Caucus, a feminist group. But she left over disagreements with board members over priorities. Her next job, promoting school programs about World War II, became virtually impossible after Sept. 11, she says. Few people wanted to focus on a war a half-century ago when the nation had a new one.
She didn't like Washington's cold weather and was concerned about another terrorist attack, so she decided to return to Miami. She now heads a nonprofit association that promotes mental health services in Miami-Dade County, overseeing a staff of 20.
She also has a stake in a company that sells cots for hurricane shelters. And she has high hopes for Mom's Miracle.
Hale turned inventor during a visit to her mother's home in Michigan last year. Hale's 100-pound German shepherd Trooper had soiled the white carpet -- "It's like cleaning up after a pony!" she says -- and she was frantically trying to remove the mess before her mother arrived.
"I realize I've gone toe-to-toe with a lot of strong authority figures, but I didn't want my mom to come home and see the carpet like that," she says.
After trying lots of mixtures, she came up with a unique blend.
"The stain was gone, the smell was gone. I said. "Eureka!' "
She won't discuss the secret formula.
Hale has mixed feelings about being in the spotlight again. She is proud of how she and her staff handled the storm, but it's painful to talk about the experience. On Saturday, she will quietly mark the 10th anniversary.
"I'm going to go to Mass. I'm going to pray for ... " Her voice cracks with emotion as she rattles off names of some of the storm's victims -- strangers' names still burned into a her memory.
"It was," she says, "a terrible time."