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No-name storm forced changes in insurance, preparation

Floridians know storms on a first-name basis: Andrew. Charley. Opal. Wilma.

Those hurricanes still haunt our collective consciousness, reminders of danger, destruction and death.

But it was a monster storm without a name that proved a catalyst for fundamental change in the state's insurance industry and the way Florida prepares for big storms.

The no-name storm that slammed into the upper Gulf Coast on March 13, 1993, struck during the annual legislative session as lawmakers worked to improve disaster management after Hurricane Andrew, just seven months earlier.

Andrew was a powerful hurricane that devastated south Miami-Dade. But the no-name storm had a much wider impact, affecting 38 of the state's 67 counties and at one point stretching from Cuba to northeast Canada.

Whatever it ultimately was called — the storm of the century, the winter hurricane or the March blizzard — the no-name storm's surprise attack was a second wake-up call that intensified the need for action in Tallahassee.

Both sides of the peninsula had been battered, fully exposing Florida's poor storm preparations, lack of shelters and sluggish after-storm response.

"Florida in that decade was beset upon by all kinds of storms, named and unnamed," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who became insurance commissioner the following year.

Mike Rucker, who for more than two decades was the meteorologist at WCTV, Tallahassee's CBS affiliate, remembered forecasting models that showed a massive disturbance building in the Gulf of Mexico, five days before the no-name storm hit Florida. At first he thought it was a big mistake.

"There's never been another one like it," Rucker said.

He recalled delivering the weather on the 11 p.m. news, hours before the storm made landfall. Evacuation orders had not been issued in low-lying areas of Taylor and Dixie counties.

"Without saying the word 'evacuation,' I tried to warn people that they should try to flee," Rucker said. "Unfortunately, a lot of them didn't."

Insurance experts said the policy decisions of 1993 were inspired by both Andrew and the no-name storm.

"It's hard to separate the two," said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council.

One outgrowth of the back-to-back storms was creation of joint underwriting associations as last-resort insurers for homeowner insurance and windstorm protection — the forerunner of today's Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

State policymakers also realized the need to fortify the CAT fund, or hurricane catastrophe fund, to plan for future disasters, because the storms of the 1990s "depleted everything," Nelson said.

The no-name storm helped inspire something else: an annual surcharge of $2 on homeowners' insurance policies and $4 on commercial policies to hire and train local emergency managers and to buy equipment.

Joe Myers, who had just arrived from North Carolina as Florida's chief of emergency management, said the surcharge was an important tool to professionalize emergency management.

"It gave us the ability to get all of the counties up and running at the same time," Myers said. "It gave us the resources to work as one."

The surcharge provided the money for training, new emergency vehicles and an annual state hurricane exercise — still held every May — that helps state and local disaster managers practice for the next big one before it hits.

Today, as changes inspired by the no-name storm continue to evolve, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott have not reached a consensus on the future of Citizens, which has ballooned into the largest insurer in the state.

Homeowners are disgusted with Citizens' premiums and cutbacks on storm coverage, and Scott has criticized the state-backed insurer for its free-spending ways. Rates rose 10.8 percent last year, and Citizens has a healthy $15 billion and record cash reserves after seven straight years without a major hurricane.

But in Florida, as everyone knows, another hurricane will hit.

It's just a matter of time.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

No-name storm forced changes in insurance, preparation 03/11/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 10, 2013 10:31pm]
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