SPECIAL REPORT: WHAT WENT WRONG
A DISASTER LONG IN THE MAKING
LISA GETTER Herald Staff Writer
December 20, 1992
The 12 years between the 1980 Mariel boatlift and Hurricane Andrew
were an era marked by growth and greed, when the bottom line all but
erased memories of past hurricanes.
In the spring of 1980, more than 125,000 refugees poured into Dade, and they needed somewhere to live. As builders met their housing needs, they increasingly sought cheaper and quicker ways to build.
In 1985, Dade's elected commissioners, lobbied by the same highly paid developers and lawyers who financed their campaigns, pushed the boundaries of development farther south and west than they had ever been.
During the decade, 10 elected officials were prosecuted for taking
bribes or having other unholy alliances with developers. The 11th
largest home builder in the county was convicted of
drug dealing in a case that began after he paid a $400 bribe to a building inspector, and the largest home builder in Hialeah Gardens turned informant after being caught laundering money.
It was a decade in which more than a dozen of Miami's banks and thrifts failed, many of them destroyed by reckless real estate lending.
For corporate and political Miami, it was "a breakdown of discipline, a breakdown of standards, a breakdown of accountability," said banker Bill Allen, a longtime community leader. "That's not an indictment. That's only an opinion."
Along with the loss of a sense of public responsibility, the dangers of a hurricane seemed forgotten.
"We went almost a generation in the community without a major, major storm. The passage of time very likely caused us to drop our guard more than we should have," said Ray Goode, the former county manager who left in 1976 to work for The Babcock Co., one of the county's largest home builders.
The county allowed new building products to penetrate the South Florida Building Code's supposedly hurricane-proof shield. And the building department nearly lost control of its inspections, as an understaffed crew rushed to meet unrealistic quotas.
"Things happened very, very fast. I think the whole system of government slipped during that period of time," said Chuck Lennon, executive director of the Builders Association of South Florida. He cited the county's understaffed product approval department, which instead of testing new building materials "deteriorated to the point where they just read reports."
Building slipped, too.
"Price became the standard of the industry," said James D. Marks, a structural engineer who has inspected about 100 homes damaged by Hurricane Andrew. Marks said about three- quarters of them were not built to withstand a hurricane.
The reason: "Greed, incompetency and ignorance," he said.
The massive refugee influx in 1980 dramatically affected Dade's housing market, Dade's former government leaders say.
"Folks started going out and building rapidly," said Sergio Pereira, the county manager from 1986 until 1988. "Maybe developers, in an effort to meet the demand, made some shortcuts. I don't think you can blame the code or the enforcing agency for that."
Goode said the county was "in a period of a silent hurricane" as people's living patterns changed throughout Dade. Within a few years, he said, many immigrants had enough money to buy their own homes.
But taking care of that silent hurricane set the stage for the real one.
To H. Crane Miller, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has studied construction practices and building codes for 20 years, the disaster uncovered by Andrew began long ago.
"The catastrophe in South Florida began years before the hurricane ever hit," he said. "Somewhere along the line -- you have to call it a large collusion -- a number of people had to have agreed that you were going to have essentially inappropriate building there."
Engineer Andrew Allocco, who inspects houses for prospective buyers, said building during the decade was scarred by "the greed to cut corners and maximize profits and the utilization of materials that haven't been proven in a hurricane."
Reginald Walters, who retired this year after serving for 28 years as Dade's Planning Director, said the competition among builders became cutthroat.
"If anything, the shoddy construction is a result of the fierce competition in the building industry, to try to cut costs, to deliver that product cheaper than anyone else, to pocket a little more of a profit," Walters said. "I've had builders say to me, 'Reg, you wouldn't believe the competition, the fierceness, almost to the point of not good business practices.' "
A March 25, 1984 headline in The Miami Herald summed it up: Build fast, save money, the new rule for builders.
Faced with rising land costs and higher interest rates, Dade's builders began turning to wood instead of concrete block. They also began cutting labor costs.
The stated goal: affordable housing.
University of Miami engineering professor Ronald Zollo said the result was poorly built housing.
He said that builders increased productivity by turning away from the close supervision and hands-on workmanship that had been the standard of the construction industry.
Structural engineer Jim Rodgers, hired to inspect Country Walk houses for homeowners suing the developer, agreed. While inspections may have been lax, Rodgers said, the construction supervision was even worse.
"It's impossible for them to inspect every stud, every truss, every joint. It's got to be a team effort with the contractor," Rodgers said of the inspectors. "It's not a lack of supervision. There's no supervision."
Architect Dorothy McKenna said the shoddy construction practices began even before the 1980s. "It's been continuous downhill shoddy workmanship. That's the name of the game," she said. "The whole question was the economy. Everyone's more interested in making a big buck."
The big bucks also became part of the political equation at County Hall, where politicians oversee zoning and changes to the building code.
Former Metro Commissioner Beverly Phillips said she believes that some zoning votes were bought. "Nobody ever walked into my office and said, 'For $100,000, would you . . . ?' That's where the real problem was," she said. "How much of that was going on, I don't know. But as I look at some of the stuff that was built, I wonder."
No commissioner was prosecuted for selling a zoning vote during the 1980s, but federal investigators opened several investigations during the decade that didn't result in charges.
Where $100,000 was enough to get candidates elected in the early part of the decade, it took five times as much by the end of the decade.
The Latin Builders Association grew from about 100 members in the
early 1980s to 1,000 members today. As it grew, the organization
raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for
commission candidates and gained considerable political clout.
A faction of the LBA split in 1988 to form the Hispanic- American Builders Association, which has since grown to 200 members.
The LBA was instrumental in 1985 in persuading the
commission to open up 2,800 acres of land in West Dade to development. And in the summer of 1988, members of the organization helped get Joaquin Avino appointed as county manager.
Avino's brother, Jorge, is an architect who has served on the LBA board. Avino began his county career in the building and zoning department.
Of his relationship with the LBA, the county manager said: "I have friends." But he said he had never given them any special favors.
"The politics is tremendous," engineer Marks said. Besides the LBA, he said there are three other powerful building factions -- the Builders Association of South Florida, the Associated General Contractors and the Associated Builders and Contractors -- that vie for power.
"Every one of these is competing for the dollar," he said.
All of the groups contribute to commission campaigns, records show.
Former Commissioner Phillips said she questions whether any of the county's top building officials ever "had the guts to do what was needed to be done."
"You're not going to buck that system. I think those men generally knew what needed to be done," she said. "When times are tough and the price of housing goes sky-high, I suspect they let some products get approved that shouldn't have been."
Avino, who oversaw the building department, said the county's product control staff "always operated in a direct relationship with the Board of Rules and Appeals."
The board, whose members are appointed by the commission, interprets the building code and determines whether new building products are suitable for use. The 1992 grand jury recommended last week that the board and the entire product approval process should be overhauled.
"A return to an independent ability to test, as the county once did, should occur," the grand jurors said.
Copyright 1992 Miami Herald