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Where's the cavalry?

by Robert A. Waters

August 21, 2002 -- Ten years ago, in the early morning of August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew howled into south Florida. Wind gusts were measured at 175 miles per hour--then the measuring instruments were blown away. The storm scored a direct hit on Homestead and Florida City, demolishing 25,000 homes and damaging another 100,000. Homestead Air Force Base was obliterated and never rebuilt. 700,000 people evacuated. Many just kept going since there was nothing to return to.

But others were determined to save what was left of their homes and property.

George Brown, a veteran, had never seen anything like it. But at least a shell was left of what used to be his home. He and his family, isolated from the outside world, began to gather their few remaining possessions. They placed their goods inside the roofless, windowless walls of their home and determined to survive until help came.

Marjorie Barber returned to her demolished home in the Goldcoaster Mobile Home RV Park. The entire park had been leveled. She enlisted the aid of her brother and set up a tent above the rubble. They salvaged what few possessions they could find, eating very little and drinking poison-tasting water. Little did they know that they would stay there for weeks, waiting for assistance.

Hastily assembled emergency crews were unable to cope with the destruction. An exasperated Kate Hale, the Dade County Emergency Management Director, called a news conference that was carried on national television. "Where the hell's the cavalry on this one?" she asked. Her outrage at the slow response of the Federal government to aid the victims was the catalyst to finally get things moving.

But it still took weeks, sometimes even months, for assistance to reach into the wasteland that was now south Florida. Those who wished to save their property and belongings were on their own.

Like vultures, the looters came. They moved from wrecked house to wrecked house, stealing anything of value. In some cases, the thieves turned violent, assaulting those who attempted to stop them.

But in many other instances, they met armed homeowners.

George Brown kept his trusty shotgun handy. According to a recent article in the St. Petersburg Times, "when Brown spotted some thieves, he chased them away at gunpoint. 'They didn't want to talk to Mr. Twelve Gauge,' he said."

Marjorie Barber and her brother developed an impromptu strategy for safeguarding the few possessions left on their property. One slept while the other stayed awake, always with a gun at the ready. In fact, Marjorie Barber became a symbol of the survivors when a photograph of the gritty homeowner holding her shotgun was published in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. Eventually, National Geographic documented the strong-willed determination of the survivors by publishing the photograph.

Barber remembers one night when looters dropped by. She threatened to shoot them and they fled. "It gets to the point," she said, "when you've had everything taken away from you already, and then somebody comes in...and they want to take from you what little you have left, it brings out an instinct in you that you don't even know is there."

It was a scene that played itself out over and over. Many moved into tent cities for protection. The "cities" were patrolled and guarded by citizens with guns. In some instances, people remained there for months until the National Guard finally took control.

What would have happened to the survivors had they not had guns?

Picture September 11 on a city-wide scale.

Civilization makes no guarantees.

Liberty City. Watts. The Rodney King riots. The images burn in our minds. Gutted buildings, flames rising hundreds of feet in the air, automobiles shattered and overturned like toy cars. And on those same streets, roaming bands of thugs brutally beating and killing the unprotected.

Ten years ago, in Dade County, Americans saw first-hand the fragility of order.

Anyone who would disarm us would leave victims defenseless in the face of another such disaster.

Robert A. Waters' new book, Gun Save Lives: True Stories of Americans Defending Their Lives with Firearms, is available at or through your local book store. Other articles from Mr. Waters can be read in his archives here: