20 years after Hurricane Andrew, troubling parallels
May 26, 2012
The following article was published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on May 26, 2012:
By Kate Spinner
The parallels are ominous.
Twenty years ago — the year Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of Miami-Dade County — a long hurricane lull had placated Florida. Now, again, a lull. A record six years have passed since a hurricane struck Florida.
Twenty years ago, the weather patterns were similar to those forecast for this year. And like this year, forecasters did not expect much hurricane activity.
Twenty years ago, like today, many Floridians had let their guard down.
Twenty years after Hurricane Andrew assaulted Miami-Dade with 165 mph winds, killing 26 people, leaving 250,000 homeless and causing $26 billion in damage, the state is better prepared. Building codes are better, emergency responders coordinate more and forecasts provide earlier warning.
But if Andrew taught anything, it is that Florida cannot rest easy. Most Floridians have no recent hurricane experience. Meanwhile, the combination of hurricane-free years and recession forced many to focus on making ends meet rather than strengthening their homes. The state cut programs that made home protection more affordable. Cities and counties cut building department staff, leaving fewer inspectors to enforce codes.
As the 2012 hurricane season arrives this week, all that makes officials uneasy.
“The longer we go without a storm, the better off we are,” said Forrest Masters, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering at University of Florida in Gainesville. “But to keep storms fresh in our minds, they have to happen.”
Almost three months into the 1992 hurricane season, not even a tropical storm had stirred the Atlantic. More than four decades had passed without a major hurricane strike on Miami-Dade County.
Then came Andrew, making a beeline across the Atlantic for South Florida.
The storm had such devastating consequences largely because so many people, unfamiliar with major hurricanes, put too much faith in building standards that were either too weak or poorly enforced.
From 1920 to 1950, dozens of powerful hurricanes caused major destruction in Florida, particularly the Miami area. Then, hurricanes largely steered away from South Florida, other than close calls by Cleo, a Category 2 that hit Fort Lauderdale in 1964, and Betsy, which struck Key Largo as a Category 3 in 1965.
During the 12 years before Andrew, only two storms hit the entire state; Kate struck the Panhandle in 1985 and Floyd the lower Florida Keys in 1987. Neither came close to Andrew’s destructive power.
People relaxed because they assumed they had been tested, Kate Hale, director of emergency management for Miami-Dade in 1992, said recently. She said most of the population lived on the coast and 80 percent of them had no hurricane experience.
“Most people in our community at that point were still of the mind that we just don’t have hurricanes here anymore. There really was that perception because we were in one of those lulls,” Hale said.
The lull in hurricane strikes coincided with major changes in the quality of housing construction and two Florida building booms that more than doubled the state’s population between 1960 and 1990.
Before World War II, people built homes and other buildings based on decades of experience, which included some intense hurricanes. They used strong materials, such as old growth timbers and solid concrete.
“Buildings were probably overdesigned quite a bit,” Masters said.
But after the war, tract housing became more common and affordability became more important than resilience. New technologies allowed builders to use less expensive and fewer materials.
Andrew’s winds collapsed many of those structures.
“It was more than just the weather; it was the way we were building,” Masters said.
Homes built in the late 1960s through the early 1980s remain the state’s most susceptible structures, said Darius Grimes, vice president of the International Hurricane Protection Association.
To retrofit a 1925 home to today’s standards for hurricane protection costs considerably less than doing the same with a home built in 1975, Grimes said.
Weak construction continued even though Florida adopted a building code in 1974. It required local governments to essentially set their own standards, with some state guidance. It resulted in a mishmash of laws across the state that were confusing and difficult to enforce.
Miami-Dade, ironically, had Florida’s strongest rules. Homes built to that code fared better that those that were not, but many developers cut corners and enforcement officers turned their heads, Grimes said.
Andrew’s winds leveled entire subdivisions, but left standing subdivisions where developers built stronger than the code required.
“Miami-Dade was real proud of itself for having the strongest building code in the country,” Grimes said. “Andrew was an embarrassment to them.”
Testing new codes Andrew threw the state’s property insurance market into turmoil, with spiraling rates that continue to rise today.
But in a way, the storm probably saved lives during the brutally busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005.
By exposing flaws in the state’s building codes, Andrew provoked sweeping changes. “It was a pivotal moment in Florida history,” Masters said.
In 2000, after years of research into what went wrong with Andrew, the state adopted and began enforcing stronger standards for wind resistance that were uniform statewide. The state also began licensing local code enforcers.
In 2004, four hurricanes struck — three of them major storms, with winds in excess of 110 mph — followed by two major hurricanes in 2005.
Among that rash of storms was Hurricane Charley.
“In Charley, you could see the effect of the Florida Building Code,” Grimes said.
Charley made landfall near Punta Gorda in August 2004. Although it was smaller than Andrew, it brought winds nearly as strong.
The storm caused significant destruction, but homes built to the new Florida code or shored-up for wind resistance endured, showing that the changes made a difference.
“The 2004 season gave us an opportunity to reflect on those changes and by and large we saw that buildings performed very well structurally. We did not see the partial or whole collapse of houses like we saw during Andrew,” Masters said.
The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons also triggered changes in Florida.
Despite better codes, the 2004 season damaged one in five homes, causing $20 billion in insured losses statewide.
Legislators realized that the state and federal government could save money in the long run by giving people financial incentives to strengthen their homes.
They established the My Safe Florida Home Program, designed to give $250 million in grants to homeowners each year for storm protection measures, such as storm shutters and roof retrofits, over 10 years.
The program went into effect in 2007 and was expected to reduce hurricane losses in Florida by $1 billion each year, on average.
Yet after Hurricane Wilma ripped a path of destruction from Naples to Miami in 2005, the storms stopped. At the same time, the real estate market crashed and the entire nation entered its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
While people struggled to pay inflated mortgages, storm shutters and roof ties dropped from the public’s priority list.
My Safe Florida Home ended after just two years, as the state faced mounting budget problems. There are also fewer inspectors to make sure new homes meet building code. Meanwhile, roughly 70 percent of homes statewide have not been strengthened or retrofitted for wind resistance.
Despite the lack of recent hurricanes, Masters stressed the need for Floridians to fortify their homes.
“It’s only a matter of time before a major hurricane strikes one of Florida’s major population centers on the coast,” Masters said. “We can’t wait until the next storm to begin hardening our coastal buildings. This has to be a steady pro-active.
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