Few events changed the psyche and economy of modern Florida more than Hurricane Andrew, which struck South Florida 20 years ago today. The Category 5 storm killed 15 people in Miami-Dade, left 150,000 homeless and brought some of the best and the worst reforms, from stronger building codes to an insurance model that puts taxpayers on the hook for catastrophic losses. This anniversary is a time to reflect on what the state's done right — and what still needs work.
Until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Andrew was the costliest natural disaster in American history. The storm flattened entire neighborhoods south of Miami, causing some $25 billion in damage. The destruction led to a vast array of improvements: stronger building codes, sharper forecasting, earlier public warnings and better emergency management procedures. But Florida remains vulnerable as more residents move to the coasts and build bigger homes, as the public becomes lax about evacuations and as homeowners assume greater financial risk as a way to afford spiking insurance premiums.
The stronger building codes have helped spare property and lives over the past two decades. Stronger roofs and windows, reinforced concrete and more routine and vigilant inspections by county building officials have enabled newer properties to withstand heavier wind loads. Technological advances have made for more accurate track predictions, giving those in the shifting danger zone more time to prepare or evacuate. State and local officials have also improved disaster management plans, and their focus on evacuating people earlier has lessened the danger from inland flooding, the biggest killer from hurricanes in the last 30 years.
Florida remains at risk, though, thanks to its geography, growth and the political failure to come to terms with the insurance crisis that leaves coverage from private insurers neither affordable nor available in too many areas. After Andrew, insurers pulled back, adopting new risk models that raised rates even while shifting costs and risks onto consumers and taxpayers. Millions of new residents have moved toward the coasts; if Andrew hit the same area today losses would be more than double, topping $50 billion. Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer of last resort, now covers 1.4 million policyholders, 20 percent of the market, with disproportionate responsibility for coastal areas. And the government's capacity to act is stretched, too, as federal budget cuts threaten the rollout of new forecasting technologies and as public complacency takes root after six hurricane-free years in Florida.
That lucky streak is at risk now. The prospect that Tropical Storm Isaac will strengthen into a hurricane today before moving on a path that could take it into Florida should be a wake-up call for residents and policymakers alike. The quiet storm seasons of the past have enabled Florida to sidestep a serious debate on how to limit its vulnerability and to make property insurance more fair, certain and affordable. That is a legacy of Andrew that haunts homeowners to this day, and it should not take another 20 years to confront it.