Homestead fights Hurricane Andrew hangover : Disaster was only latest blow to hard-luck Florida town, now pinning its hopes on raceway.

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Hurricane season began last week, and just the thought of that makes people here more than a little nervous. "I don't think anybody wants to ever go through something like Hurricane Andrew again," Mayor Tad DeMilly says.

Raked by 145-m.p.h. winds, this farming community on the tip of the Florida peninsula was all but blown off the map that August morning in 1992. In Dade County, 17 people were killed and 63,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged. And in Homestead, about 12,000 people--about half the population--gathered up what belongings they could find and left the area altogether.

Since Andrew, Homestead has been struggling to find the road to recovery. Now it looks like that road might be a 1 1/2-mile-long racetrack in the middle of what was a potato field.

"There's always a risk," DeMilly was saying last week as clouds of chalk-white construction dust rose into the steamy morning air. "But I really believe this is going to happen."

To build what backers say will be the finest motor sports complex in the country, the city has committed to spend $52 million for a 65,000-seat raceway that could attract the world's best drivers.

Last month, former Blockbuster mogul H. Wayne Huizenga pledged $20 million for a share in running the track, and a nationally televised NASCAR race is scheduled to open the facility Nov. 3.

But Homestead has a history as a hard-luck town, and nothing is certain. Less than a mile down the road from the half-finished racetrack sits what some locals call a "pink elephant," a little-used, pastel-colored $20-million baseball stadium that has everything but a home team. After building the stadium as a lure for a major league franchise looking for a spring training home, city officials in 1992 finally signed the Cleveland Indians.

And then Andrew roared in and blew the deal apart.

On the other side of the construction site is Homestead Air Force Base, which once provided 8,000 jobs, worth $450 million a year to the local economy. But the hurricane leveled the base and scattered those jobs too. Barely open now, Homestead is on the government's list for possible closure.

"Homestead is a whipping boy, we truly are," says Kathleen A. Senobe, an official of the Dade County Farm Bureau. Although most crops were unaffected by the storm, tree fruits such as mangoes, avocados and limes were ravaged and have yet to rebound. And, Senobe says, the North American Free Trade Agreement has allowed Mexico to cut into sales of Homestead tomatoes, the most important crop in the county's $1-billion annual agriculture economy.

Visitors don't have to look too closely to see the physical scars of the most costly storm ever to hit the United States. The few trees that survived are stunted and misshapen. Rebuilt neighborhoods are dotted with boarded-up houses. There is still no movie theater.

A stroll down Krome Avenue, the city's main street, is a walk through sun and shadow. The royal palms planted in the months after the storm are thriving, and those stores and antique shops that are open have undergone face lifts. Some businesses are even prospering. Estefana Hernandez, owner of El Toro Taco, a popular Mexican restaurant here for 17 years, says 1994 was her best year ever. "We made a lot of new friends right after the hurricane, and those people come back to see us."

But there are many vacant buildings, even empty lots, downtown, and some stores are just hanging on. "We have to get a middle class back in here," says Ron Webb, president of Homestead Furniture Co. "We did well right after the storm, but now we're week to week meeting the payroll."

Homestead has never been a wealthy community. With agriculture as the major industry, many residents are natives of Mexico and Guatemala who work in the fields, nurseries and packing houses.

Those who left town after the storm were those who could afford to leave--Homestead's middle-income residents. Now, after a stressful 2 1/2 years of recovery efforts, many of the city's top administrators also have packed up. "Our city staff got Ph.D.s in disaster recovery and crisis management," says DeMilly, "and they all got other offers. We have lost key individuals." Among those recently departed: the city manager, two of his top aides and the chiefs of the parks and the code enforcement departments.

Economic recovery, says DeMilly, "has been slower than we would like." Although 2,000 new housing units have been built, and the population is creeping back toward 23,000, Homestead is a poorer community today than it was before Andrew, he adds.

The racetrack is Homestead's next best hope. "Marketing our area is difficult right now," says Kim Sovia, president of the local chamber of commerce. "That's why the racetrack is so vital. It's the most visible sign of rebuilding since Andrew. We need it."

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