Emergency managers found lessons in devastation from Hurricane Andrew

Published May 18, 2012

The federal response was slow, the relief trucks few. Days after Hurricane Andrew struck, people along its devastated path were desperate for food and water. One woman's voice sounded over the airwaves, calling for help in what was the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?" asked Kate Hale, then Dade County's emergency management director. Relief came quickly and Hale became something of a folk hero. With the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew this August, we caught up with Hale, now an emergency manager in James City County, Va., to talk about what emergency managers learned from the Category 5 hurricane.

What are the biggest changes in emergency management since Hurricane Andrew?

One is the increased appreciation for emergency management, what it is, does and means to local and state governments. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was overrun with political appointees and that has changed. We have seen, finally, for the first time, that we've had two real emergency managers in the top job in FEMA. The first was James Lee Witt and now we have Craig Fugate.

What did we learn from Andrew about preparation, alerting the public and emergency response?

Really, Andrew didn't teach as much as it reinforced the value of preparedness and public information and education. Actually, South Floridians responded well . . . and were fairly prepared ... What Andrew did is devastate areas that were not evacuated for water. It was the wind fields that led to the massive destruction.

And it changed building codes?

Absolutely. And as a result of that, building codes all over the state changed. There's so many new products on the market now to render buildings safer. The insurance industry pays a great deal more attention to this and is much more interested in reinforcing safe structures ... The old saying is that you evacuate people from storm surge because in the past, historically, nine out of 10 deaths resulted from storm surge. But in today's world, where we have high-rise buildings and we have much larger populations concentrated, the need to pay attention to wind is much more significant.

Why is it important to evacuate tall structures?

The higher you go, the higher the wind speeds are going to be ... Often those buildings are full of glass. At the time, many associations prohibited people from putting storm shutters over large expanses of glass. It was against the condominium rules. It was a constant battle. If the glass goes, the interiors are basically just dry wall.

What specific lessons did we learn from Andrew?

The lessons were in how to respond to urban communities which are devastated and whose supplies and resources are part of what has been destroyed. Before that we had never seen such a huge area so devastated ... Our infrastructure was so devastated that the government itself was a major victim of the storm. There are a lot of systems and processes in place now to accelerate that delivery of critical resources. But the other thing we learned is that the first line will always be the surrounding areas — communities who have those supplies together ... People in the immediate area around us who were not impacted were the first line.

One of the other critical things I think that happened was the inclusion of commercial stakeholders in the process.

After Andrew?

It really started to happen after Andrew. It's been a slow process to build, but I think it's been steady process. And a number of people in the process have really encouraged that. It's much more robust than 20 years ago.

What are some specifics that relationship would accomplish?

One, I think they are much more attentive to reinforcing preparedness messages. They are in place to be part of the response. They're not victims, they are resources now. For example, if you can get your stores up and operating, and they are ready to move in water, ice, food, medication, then we don't have to rely on the other systems that are more cumbersome ... If you have paralysis because of no fuel, no food, no water, no ice, then we have no choice but to default to public systems which are slower and more cumbersome. Are they better than they were in Andrew? Absolutely. But are they the best line? No.

Do you think federal response to major disasters improved after Andrew?

I think it has but it is a dynamic process and it's a process that requires constant commitment and resources to sustain. It's like anything else. You can develop it, but you have to sustain it. It is a partnership, as all government in America is, that consists of three layers, and that is local, state and federal. I think that the processes are more integrated now. When I look at what happens now compared to what happened in Andrew, it's just a different world all together. New systems, capabilities and people have incorporated the lessons of not just Andrew, but so many devastating events ... It is infinitely better now than what we saw in Andrew and what we saw in Katrina. Again, we need to continue to be vigilant.

What did Andrew teach us about the long-term response?

Of course, the better prepared you are, the more resilient you are and the more likely you are to survive with reduced impacts. But a catastrophic event changes the demographics because so many people and businesses are displaced and the demand as well as competition for resources to recover is extraordinary. It takes time to rebuild homes and neighborhoods, to restore infrastructure and replace the architecture of economic viability. People need to heal. Long-term recovery is a highly complex process.

What else should we know?

Andrew was the first storm of a low-frequency year. I think the lesson there is that it doesn't matter if it's a high-frequency or low-frequency year. We can just never take anything for granted. There is no room for complacency if you live in the hurricane-vulnerable part of the country.