A ghost town air base still hopes to fly again : Homestead, once a showplace, was devastated by Hurricane Andrew, then by defense cuts.

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Until 6 1/2 months ago, Homestead Air Force Base was a Defense Department showplace, a palm-shaded post on Florida's southern tip where 4,400 active-duty military personnel and an equal number of civilian employees worked and played in what looked like a well-tended resort.

"With a conference center, and a great little golf course, this was perceived as a jewel by Air Force brass stationed in Washington and Virginia, especially in winter," said Homestead Mayor Tad DeMilly.

Then Hurricane Andrew blew in.

Today, Homestead Air Force Base is a ghost town.

On block after deserted block, homes that were hastily abandoned as the storm approached stand crumbling. Windows are smashed out, insulation drips from shattered ceilings and the eerie evidence of former lives--including clothing, furniture, medicines and breakfast cereals--sits moldering in the heat and humidity. In all, more than 1,600 residences were destroyed by the storm.

Giant hangars that once housed 90 F-16 jets of the 31st Fighter Wing are twisted and collapsing. The jets are gone.

On one runway apron, the smashed remains of two huge C-130 transport planes serve as dramatic evidence of the force of the storm that hit here on Aug. 24, 1992.

Winds were estimated to have reached 150 m.p.h. The estimate of damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in southern Dade County tops $20 billion.

The Pentagon has budgeted $76 million for partial reconstruction of the ravaged base. But last Friday, when Defense Secretary Les Aspin released the Pentagon's list of recommendations for shutting down military bases, Homestead was on it--to no one's surprise.

What did surprise local officials was that two Air Force Reserve units stationed here were also moved. "This is emotionally and economically devastating to the community," DeMilly said.

In this largely agricultural area, the base pumped an estimated $480 million a year into the local economy, and its loss has already taken a heavy toll in a community nearly obliterated by the storm.

The cost of restoring the base to full military capability could run as high as $900 million, but there may be other options.

After a recent visit, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros suggested that Homestead, with its undamaged 11,000-foot runway, could be used for anti-smuggling operations conducted by the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Part of the 3,345-acre base may also be given over to commercial air operations, relieving some of the burden on Miami International Airport, 25 miles to the north. A portion of the base could become the site of a new Veterans' Administration hospital.

Restoring the base to any useful capacity will take many months and millions of dollars, however. Air Force officials estimate that 85% of the buildings were destroyed.

On curving residential streets, tattered curtains flutter through broken windows. Lawn mowers and baby strollers sit in garages with no roofs. The chapel has fallen into rubble.

"It's sad," said Air Force Col. Dennis Caffrey. "This was one of the showcase bases of the Air Force, kept in immaculate condition. But like everything else around here, it shows how a few hours of violent natural activity can change the lives of so many people."

About $1-billion worth of military equipment, everything from office furnishings to parts from jets destroyed by the hurricane, have been salvaged, according to Air Force officials.

Capt. Ken McClellan, an Air Force spokesman, said winds from the weekend's massive Eastern storm caused an estimated $400,000 in damage to tents, portable shelters and a field kitchen used by temporary-duty personnel at the base. On Saturday, some 300 people being housed in tents were evacuated into one of the few undamaged buildings on the base.

"We just have to reach a little deeper and pull together. First the hurricane, then the recovery, and now this. It's another challenge to face," McClellan said.

DeMilly says he and other local officials are "pretty much resigned to the fact that Homestead is finished as an air-combat command installation.

"But," the mayor added, "if we're able to implement the Cisneros suggestions, we think we could be in a stronger position than we were as just a single-use facility.

"We'd have the military presence through the Air Force Reserve, which would address the concerns of the Cuban-American population, who wants Fidel Castro to be held in check, and we'd have a civilian facility. It could be the best of all worlds if they come together."

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