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What lessons has Florida learned from mistakes with past hurricanes?

“You’ve got to stop focusing on the wrong thing,” said the deputy director of the National Hurricane Center. “Storm surge is historically the biggest killer.”
People are seen near damaged properties on a broken section of Pine Island Road on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Fla. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of South West Florida as a category 4 storm Tuesday afternoon leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
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Updated Jun 4, 2023

As Florida begins the 2023 hurricane season still recovering from Hurricane Ian, engineers and disaster experts warn that the state has been too slow to learn from repeated mistakes.

Despite wind mitigation lessons from Hurricane Charley 18 years ago, despite reliable early warnings and better data from satellites, buoys and aircraft, despite the availability of more powerful computers and sophisticated modeling, Hurricane Ian was a deadly storm that has become the costliest in state history.

It killed 149 people, the most fatalities from a Florida storm since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. It caused an estimated $109.5 billion in property damage, and only half of that is expected to be covered by insurance.

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To engineers and disaster experts who have analyzed the data and helped communities recover from the damage, there was nothing surprising about the storm that made landfall near Fort Myers Beach on Sept. 28.

What alarms them is that they know how to mitigate property damage with resilient construction and avoid deaths — especially those related to storm surge and inland flooding — but Floridians aren’t listening to the warnings.

“We’re seeing an overall decline in direct fatalities with a corresponding increase in indirect fatalities,” said Jamie Rhome, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center at the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Palm Beach on May 10.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management has not completed its after-action report on Hurricane Ian because recovery is still underway, and it canceled its annual statewide training exercise for emergency responders because “we literally just practiced in real life,” said Alecia Collins, spokesperson for the agency.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says his community can’t wait for the state to assemble recommendations and train for the next disaster. His city is conducting an evacuation tabletop exercise on June 6 “to evaluate our readiness and capacity to carry out a citywide evacuation in the face (of) an approaching hurricane.”

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“The point of an after-action report from the state is you say, what did we do right or what we got wrong so we don’t repeat it,” he said. “Most of the people that died were seniors who have trouble moving, or people who thought they could ride it out. What effort is being made to change the communication?”

Lesson one: Focus on surge and flooding

Communication failures and misdirected focus from emergency officials can be deadly, Rhome said in his presentation to the conference.

“You’ve got to stop focusing on the wrong thing,” he said. “Storm surge is historically the biggest killer.”

He said warnings from local officials and the media too often focus on the cone of the hurricane’s potential impact and the Saffir-Simpson scale that produces the 1-to-5 rating based on sustained wind speed. He said the scale does not take into account storm surge, rainfall flooding and tornadoes, all hazards that proved deadly last year.

The message from forecasters was consistent, Rhome said: “A major hurricane is going to move in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. And likely impact the west coast of Florida. ... This is messaging and lead times that for those of us who are dinosaurs thought never possible and likely saved numerous lives, but the story was never told.”

Yet, one of the incorrect narratives that emerged is that the forecast abruptly changed as Ian “took a hard right hook (and) cut everybody off by surprise,” he said.

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Those factors led Lee County, where nearly half of the deaths occurred, to wait to order evacuations until a day after neighboring Charlotte County issued its order. It was a decision Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials defended after the storm.

As a result, the number of people who were exposed to life-threatening storm surge was about 157,000, “which was more than all of the storms in 2020 and 2021 combined,” Rhome said.

“When we issue a storm surge watch or (flood) warning, we mean it,” Rhome said, noting that from 2013 to 2022, 57% of the direct fatalities from hurricanes are attributable to freshwater flooding, 15% are due to surf or rip currents, 12% are because of wind and 11% are the result of storm surge.

“It should have the same shock as the hurricane watch or warning,” he said.

The messaging also needs to be focused on introducing the dangers to newcomers to the state, he said, because of the “huge number of people who experienced a hurricane for the first time.”

Lesson two: We know the development risk but avoid it

David O. Prevatt, professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, studied the damage patterns and storm surge of Hurricane Ian for an interim report submitted to the Florida Building Commission.

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He said Floridians continue to be slow to make the changes needed to fortify themselves against the costly impacts of storms.

“When we rise to the occasion, we learn from our failures,” he said Thursday. “I contend that our learning from failure in a context of wind hazards is too slow and the growth of housing — being built in very vulnerable areas — far exceeds our ability to do something about it.”

Testimony before the state Senate Select Committee on Resiliency from emergency managers in Lee County, where 322 homes were destroyed, and in Collier, where there were 144 homes lost, underscored that older slab-on-grade homes constructed before Florida’s updated building code, and manufactured or mobile homes — both on the coast and inland — consistently could not withstand the impact of winds or flooding.

Prevatt and his team of scientists came to similar conclusions: The wind speed on land of about 120 mph was below the maximum expected by building code standards, but the flooding damage had enormous impact. According to an assessment by the insurance data firm the CoStar Group, Ian destroyed about 5,000 homes and severely damaged another 30,000 from Lee County and inland across Central Florida to Daytona Beach.

“In particular, it was manufactured homes on Fort Myers Beach and slab-on-grade homes, mainly older homes,” Prevatt said.

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As of early May, the National Flood Insurance Program had paid nearly $4 billion to policyholders because of damage from Hurricane Ian — and that did not take into account damage sustained by property owners who didn’t have flood insurance.

Prevatt said he saw the same patterns of damage in Ian that he observed in the previous six years from hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Michael.

“It’s one of the saddest parts for me,” he said in a recent interview on the “Florida Insurance Roundup” podcast. “If we don’t harden our communities or retreat and move them away from these intense events, we will repeat what we’ve seen here five, 10, 20 years down the road.”

Lesson three: Be realistic about cost of resilience

The interim report submitted to the Florida Building Commission concluded that Southwest Florida coastal communities were “ill-prepared” for the storm surge and flooding.

“Recent construction built to the recent Florida Building Commission building code standards performed well even in areas where they were impacted by the 13-foot-high storm surges,” Prevatt said.

All studies show the vulnerability of mobile homes, Prevatt said, which should be raising questions for policymakers.

“Is there a responsibility for that community to set policy so that people who don’t have insurance, people who are living hand-to-mouth, are as protected as those living in a reinforced concrete home?” he asked. “The policies that we set dictate what we will construct.”

Karthik Ramanathan, vice president of research at Verisk, a data analytics and risk assessment firm that came up with the early damage estimates, said that 30 years after building codes were updated in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, inland counties in Florida saw significant numbers of damage claims, primarily from roof damage.

“It’s mind-boggling, seeing the same state which sort of pioneered wind design, not just in the United States, but sort of across the world, is seeing some of the same issues 30 years on in an event like Ian,” he said on the “Florida Insurance Roundup” podcast.

• • •

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