Lessons learned from Hurricane Ian and the work that still needs to be done
Florida marked the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew in August, noting how far the state had come in hardening against and recovering from epic storms. Then came Hurricane Ian, which made clear more work needs to be done.
Hurricane Hits and Misses
- EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT …
Florida and the nation have become better at managing disasters since Andrew in 1992 left the Miami-Dade emergency management chief in tears on national TV.
Andrew — with a scale of destruction and need that stunned even disaster pros — became a turning point for Florida emergency management. Training now is extensive. It’s habitual for top leaders to move to the storm site to coordinate action. Florida Division of Emergency Management Division Director Kevin Guthrie, on this year’s 30th anniversary of Andrew, says Florida is a “national leader in emergency management.”
FEMA’s history, pre-Andrew, was reactive, making recommendations to the president after a governor made a formal declaration for help. In Andrew, that help was slow to come and desperate residents roamed Miami in search of ice, food, gasoline, batteries and charcoal for grills, the only functional method of cooking, and were often victims of price gouging. Historically, agency leaders were retired military. That changed to professional emergency managers.
FEMA was further improved after criticism of the response to Katrina in 2005. President George W. Bush signed into law a reorganization of FEMA and provided new authority to fix gaps that showed up in Katrina.
But challenges remain. In a recent interview on the podcast 13th & Park, Craig Fugate, Florida Division of Emergency Management director under Gov. Jeb Bush and FEMA head under President Barack Obama, said, “the system is starting to fray” from too many catastrophes. “We’re going to need to do things differently.” And, he said, “it’s taking us too long to rebuild.” He recalls as head of FEMA still approving Katrina projects 10 years after the storm. “We need to get in there and rebuild in years, not decades.”
Hurricane Ian is Southwest Florida’s Andrew — the worst the region’s people have ever seen, says Craig Fugate, Florida Emergency Management Division director under Gov. Jeb Bush and FEMA head under President Barack Obama.
- UTILITIES …
Hurricane Ian knocked out power to 90% of the customers of the Lee County Electric Cooperative, the utility for the area hardest hit by the storm. With the exception of Sanibel and Pine Island, the cooperative in 13 days had power back for all but 5% of its 240,586 customers. Two days later, thanks to a temporary bridge, it had restored power to some of its 7,398 customers on Pine Island as it rebuilt its grid “one pole at a time,” the cooperative announced. Work began on Sanibel for its 10,946 customers after repairs to the causeway advanced enough to allow passage by a one-time convoy of more than 200 bucket trucks, 150 line and pickup trucks towing 50 trailers, and two semis. The cooperative overall utilized more than 2,500 utility workers from the cooperative, FPL, Duke Energy and more than 50 cooperatives and utilities in Florida and nine other states.
The recovery from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 schooled FPL and other Florida power companies on the importance of developing systems to mobilize resources, map storm damage, estimate restoration times and generally harden the power grid to make it more resilient by, for example, moving power lines underground, trimming trees, replacing wood transmission structures with concrete or steel and installing smart devices to prevent outages.
Unusual for power companies nationally, Florida utilities freely share lessons learned with each other in state-sponsored workshops. Florida utilities are able to pass on to customers their spending on reliability and resiliency. FPL says it has increased service reliability by more than 40% in recent years and plans to invest $1 billion annually for the next 10 years on storm hardening.
Following Hurricane Wilma in 2005, it took FPL five days to restore power to half the 3.2 million customers who lost it. Investments in strengthening the energy grid since then paid off after Hurricane Ian. FPL had the power back on for half of affected customers before the storm left the state and restored power to 75% of customers after two full days of restoration work.
- BUILDING CODE …
Winds topped out at Punta Gorda at 155 mph, scary to live through but to wind-load engineers it was not even a “design-level” storm, that is, one that exceeds what buildings are now designed to handle.
In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the focus was on designing to withstand ferocious winds. Southeast Florida after Andrew in 1992 led the state in toughening codes. Florida overall followed with a new, tough code in 2001 and the Panhandle “loophole,” which had exempted Northwest Florida from inland wind-borne debris standards, was closed in 2007. Repeatedly proven since, houses and buildings constructed to the higher code can take a hit. David Prevatt, a University of Florida civil and coastal engineering professor who has done studies sponsored by the Florida Building Code Commission, visited Punta Gorda after Ian and found a primary school of recent vintage that, aside from some exterior walkway damage, appeared undamaged.
Hurricane Ian, however, will be remembered for its storm surge and flooding. In Ian’s aftermath, the public and officials wondered if any building can withstand the power of so much water. “Absolutely, yes. As a designer the answer is absolutely yes,” says William Bracken, a forensic engineer in Tampa. Homes can be built high enough to protect against surge and flooding.
Reports from the center of the Ian damage zone indicate newer code buildings elevated to protect from storm surge survived while those around were obliterated. The upshot? The code is effective and working, Prevatt and Bracken say. The problem is so many buildings in Florida still predate the higher standards. Florida Trend found at least 28% of the state’s single-family homes are constructed to the new, tougher code. Of course, that means as much as 72% aren’t.
Rebuilding in Southwest Florida will have to account for storm surge and flooding. It’s cheaper to build against surge and flooding upfront rather than trying to retrofit, says Leslie Chapman- Henderson, president and CEO of Tallahassee-based non-profit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a consumer advocate for strengthening homes from disasters. “Our citizens like to build in harm’s way because that’s where nature is at its best,” Chapman- Henderson says.
- INSURANCE …
In the scheme of things, it didn’t take long to rebuild south Miami- Dade after Hurricane Andrew. The same can’t be said of the state’s insurance market. Thirty years on, it remains a mess.
The surge of red ink that swamped national insurers from the costliest disaster payout in industry history — at the time — led the State Farms and Allstates to drastically cut how many homes they insure in Florida. Andrew led to other changes: Industry catastrophe modeling, hurricane deductibles, a much larger role in the market for the state government via a state catastrophe fund to supplement insurers’ claims-paying ability and Citizens Property Insurance. At the time of Andrew, a Florida windstorm pool for beach homes that couldn’t get private market coverage totaled $7.4 billion in insured value. Citizens, its successor as “insurer of last resort,” today numbers more than 1 million policies representing $380 billion in exposure. As of Sept. 30, Citizens is nearly 55% larger than any private insurer operating in the state, according to an analysis by the Insurance Information Institute.
Since Andrew, Florida has cycled through insurance crises even without hurricanes — sinkholes in this century’s first decade and more recently soaring claims the industry blames on payout-hungry attorneys, adjusters and contractors. Legislative changes haven’t borne fruit in the form of a stable market or lower premiums. Floridians pay an average of $4,231, nearly triple the national average, for coverage, says the Insurance Information Institute. Renewal premiums on home insurance averaged 33% increases across Florida in 2022, compared to a U.S. average of 9%. Six Florida-focused, small insurers failed this year before Ian.
Ian is guaranteed to bring more litigation. Home insurance policies don’t cover flood damage and only 18% of homeowners in Florida buy flood insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute. FEMA found after Hurricane Michael that properties outside the highest flood risk areas actually sustained more damages than those inside — $110,000 on average compared to $95,000.
Contrary to popular belief, the federal government doesn’t make uninsured people whole who experience substantial flood loss. FEMA grants to individuals without coverage top out at $33,000, and the average is much smaller — $8,016 in Superstorm Sandy in 2012, for instance. After that, the government just offers low-cost loans.
Faced with ruinous losses that aren’t covered, homeowners will have reason to hire attorneys and adjusters to argue their damages came from policy-covered wind, not uninsured surge and floodwaters.
“The storm is only going to make matters worse,” says Kyle Ulrich, president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents. Florida insurers rely on offshore reinsurance — insurance to help insurers cover claims — that’s subject to diminished supply and rising costs. “Capital is becoming more and more difficult to find in a rising interest rate environment at the same time looking at historical losses here in Florida,” Ulrich says.
- RELIEF RESPONSE …
Two days after Ian made landfall, a caravan of helpers from a grocery store chain headed to Florida from an unlikely location — Iowa. Hy-Vee, a West Des Moines-based chain, sent its “disaster relief fleet,” which includes 10 semis and a mobile water system, and 28 employees and retirees to Port Charlotte to hand out 161,280 bottles of drinking water, 2,800 bags of ice and 3,195 cases of snacks and cleaning supplies. “Our nearest store to Florida is probably Springfield, Ill., or Peru, Ill. We saw that the resources in the community were going to be taxed and the need would be great,” says Cole Bisgard, Hy-Vee’s business continuity and preparedness program manager, who led the team to Florida for a 12-day aid trip. In partnership with Missouri-based Operation BBQ Relief, Hy-Vee also supplied 50,000 meals per day to residents and emergency management teams.
Private sector storm prep, logistics and aid has ramped up considerably in the 30 years since Hurricane Andrew when the private sector had trouble just figuring out how to get ice to south Miami-Dade. Ahead of Ian, Walmart pushed $23 million in water and disaster-related merchandise to area stores to supply customers. Publix, in less than two weeks, had all but one store — on Fort Myers Beach — reopened. On the first Saturday after the storm, it gave out 8,000 gallons of water and 75,000 pounds of ice in Southwest Florida. Its total quickly ran to 700 truckloads of water — that’s roughly 1 million cases — and 3 million pounds of ice. Before stores in the threatened area closed, Publix donated perishables to first responders and employees who worked nearby and prepared the stores for the storm. Winn-Dixie, just in the early days, distributed free water, ice, food and cleaning supplies to 1,100 families in Englewood and Port Charlotte and quickly set up mobile pharmacies.
Walmart stationed 400 drivers in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to help in recovery. Lowe’s reopened its stores within 48 hours and moved 2,300 truckloads of supplies to the area and, early on, 350 employees to help serve customers and relieve impacted local workers. Nineteen up-market and luxury hotels in Broward offered free lodging to 23 families from Lee County whose children were in newborn intensive care hospital units and relocated to Broward hospitals. SpaceX deployed 350 Starlink units to provide high-speed internet for recovery and first responders. Smaller businesses also gave. Local dealers for Mulberry-based Badcock Home Furniture &more donated generators and supplies to victims and emergency workers. Gigi Stetler, CEO of RV Sales of Broward in Dania Beach, and her non-profit RV Advisor Consumer Association donated 20 RVs to house emergency responders in the Fort Myers area.
Corporate donors also stepped up. First lady Casey DeSantis said the Florida Disaster Fund, the state’s official private fund, raised $50 million as of early November. As of mid-October, Walmart had pledged $6 million in hurricane relief, $1.5 million of it to the state fund; Target, $5 million; Lowe’s, $2 million; and Home Depot and Publix, $1 million each. Amscot Financial founder Ian MacKechnie and wife Jean donated $1 million to the Florida Disaster Fund.
- FORECASTING …
Much has been made over the Hurricane Ian forecast cone and the timing of evacuation orders in Lee County. Like Hurricane Andrew (1992) and Hurricane Charley (2004), Hurricane Ian skewed south. With Andrew, that spared Miami. With Charley and Ian, it spared Tampa but meant disaster for Charlotte and Lee counties.
Five days out, the forecast cone for Ian covered the eventual landfall area, and at no point was the cone anything but too close for comfort, especially considering the cone turns out wrong a third of the time. National media indeed focused on Tampa Bay, but local media in Southwest Florida were unrelenting in warning of risk. And the National Hurricane Center’s surge warnings always signaled oncoming disaster for Southwest Florida.
The National Hurricane Center’s prediction accuracy on storm tracks has increased by 75% since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The center’s accuracy in forecasting intensity has increased 50%. Credit more and better tech — Hurricane tracking planes, drones, land-sea-and space-based gear — along with improved analysis and greater understanding of storm dynamics. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been testing its next-gen Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System model, which is scheduled to go into operation next year.
- EVACUATIONS/EMERGENCY MESSAGING …
Until Ian struck, hurricanes since 1992 represented a low lethal threat. Nationally, the 30-year average for hurricane deaths was 45, according to the National Weather Service. Heat, tornadoes and flood each killed more. In the last 10 years, hurricanes were the least lethal weather factor, averaging eight deaths — far behind rip currents (69), wind (58), cold (38), winter (30), heat (105), tornadoes (49), lightning (23) and flood (98). The February 2021 Great Texas Freeze killed 246, Texas health authorities say.
The maxim is hide from the wind, run from the water. In Ian, people who should have run did not. State officials say nearly 60% of the 130 Floridians who died in Ian drowned.
Authorities and researchers have polled, studied and experimented with ways to solve what was a problem in Andrew in 1992 and remains one today: Getting the people most in harm’s way to evacuate.
In Andrew, 30% of the people in the recommended evacuation areas of Miami-Dade didn’t leave. “If (Andrew) had actually hit 30 miles farther north, I don’t know how many people would have died, but you would have had tens of thousands of people out there,” says Jay Baker, professor emeritus from Florida State University’s geography department, who has studied the response to emergency communications extensively.
Baker says a small percentage of people don’t leave because they face difficulty in getting transportation or finding a place to go, but the majority don’t leave because they believe the storm won’t strike them, or if it does, won’t be bad — or because they never realized they were asked to evacuate.
“People are generally more concerned about wind than water, even people close to the water,” says Baker. Also, he says, people overestimate the likelihood that a storm will affect them but underestimate how severely it will affect them.
Newcomers are more concerned about hurricanes than veteran Floridians. Experience with past storms can mislead. Those who weathered Hurricane Charley in 2004 with aplomb faced much greater danger in Hurricane Ian. “A lot of people learn bad lessons,” Baker says.
Baker says response rates would improve if authorities could create a way to more viscerally frighten people. Personalized notifications help and door-to-door visits are effective. Also, evacuation pleas must leave people thinking they have no choice even though they do. People tend to respond better to words like “order” and “mandatory.”
- COMMUNICATIONS …
1992’s Andrew came in a different age. The first mass-produced 2G cell phone came out only that year, which also saw the first text message sent. Claims were filed on paper. Claims adjusters worked from forms in the order received. A street might have a half-dozen impacted customers, but the adjuster only had the info for one. In areas of Miami-Dade wiped clean of landmarks and street signs, navigation was a challenge. GPS for civilian use wouldn’t come for seven more years. All the improvements in tech and connectivity since then — Apple Maps included — speed recovery for those affected and for insurance claims handling. “From the standpoint of communications alone, we are so much better off,” says Leslie Chapman- Henderson, who moved to Miami for 18 months as a claims manager on Allstate’s catastrophe team. She’s now CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a consumer advocate for hardening homes against disaster.