(With Hurricane Michael bearing down on the Florida Panhandle this seems like a good time to post this piece I wrote for the current edition of FORUM magazine. How will Florida cope with hurricanes in the future?)
“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”: Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The great hurricane of 1928 caused Lake Okeechobee to flood its banks, drowning more than 2,500 people.
It remains to this day the most deadly storm ever to visit Florida.
“The tragic irony is that Indians had foretold that Lake Okeechobee would spill over its rim once again to feed the Everglades.” writes Mark Derr in his book “Some Kind of Paradise”
The Seminoles, it was said, could predict hurricanes “by watching the way sawgrass bloomed,” he continued. “Scientists speculated that atmospheric changes proceeding a hurricane made the pollen from sawgrass visible for several days before the blow.”
Ninety years later the science of hurricane forecasting and tracking has advanced to the point that it is no longer necessary to rely on local lore or blind luck to survive the advancing storm.
And it’s getting better. Consider NOAA’s launch last year of a GOES-16 geostationary satellite that enables real time tracking of storms with updates every 30 seconds. Modern computer assisted forecasting provides ever more accurate information about where hurricanes are going, when they will get there and how strong they are likely to be.
Which is not to say that public awareness about about hurricane impacts has necessarily kept up with the science. As National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham cautioned at this year’s annual Florida Hurricane Conference, “Here’s the deal, we could make a perfect forecast, but if people don’t understand it, it doesn’t count. We have to talk about the cone and communicate that we can still get impacts hundreds of miles away.”
Science and public education aside, two critical factors are conspiring to further complicate hurricane preparedness and disaster response in Florida, will likely continue to do so well into the future.
1: In 1928 just over one million souls called Florida home. Today more than 21 million live here – and 14 million of them are concentrated in coastal counties.
“No matter how well your response is it’s still going to look horrible when you have to evacuate millions of people over road systems that aren’t built for this,” says Craig Fugate, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director. “We have far too many people who have built and continue to build in hurricane evacuation zones.”
2: Further complicating Florida’s surging coastal population growth is increasing evidence that climate change is driving rising sea levels and warmer ocean conditions. As a result, Florida is likely to experience even more intense and wetter hurricanes in the future.
That is the “thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night,” says Dr. Richard S. Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute and International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. “If you start factoring in the possibility of increasing numbers of category 4 and 5 storms, and climate scientists are pretty clear about that, then that pattern may become the new normal.”
So how to prepare for the “new normal” of ever stronger hurricanes visiting ever-growing Florida?
First, heed the lessons of past storms.
Twenty five years ago Andrew came ashore in Miami, leveling whole neighborhoods and causing damages in excess of $10 billion. The wreckage was so extensive that at least 10 insurance companies went broke trying to cover losses.
The lessons of Andrew? Existing building codes were inadequate, and the private insurance market could not be relied upon to cover all the losses. As a result, tougher South Florida building codes were adopted, and Florida established its Hurricane Catastrophe Fund.
Moreover, the notion of building more storm-resilient communities continues to spread.
“We deal with this all the time, and not just here in south Florida but in the low country of South Carolina and gulf coast of Texas, Mississippi and Alabama,” says Victor Dover, a Miami-based urban design consultant. “Every day city planning conversations about are taking place about how to build resiliency into next comprehensive plan update.
“That wasn’t the case 30 years ago, it was something we had to bring up,” he said of his client communities. “Now they are bringing it up, and that’s a very good thing.”
Last year, Hurricane Irma served up another valuable lesson – that poorly conceived mass evacuation advisories may no longer be practical or safe. Evacuation warnings issued in advance of Irma brought interstate highway traffic to a standstill from South Florida well up into Georgia, potentially putting fleeing residents in more danger than if they had stayed home.
“We over-evacuated in Irma,” said Olson, “everybody was traumatized by what Harvey had just done to Houston.
“There’s a saying; hide from wind, run for water,” he continued. “The people that needed to be evacuated were living in the coastal zones and we needed to get them away from the water” and the threat of storm surge.
“And what caught everybody by surprise was that people did not evacuate locally, they just got the hell out of Dodge. There were so many people on the open road that the road was not open.
“If you want to have fewer people driving the length of state, they need to be able to go to places that are not only hardened for safety but will allow a degree of comfort.” Pointing to the death of several elderly patients last year at a Hollywood facility that had lost power for several days he said “comfort in South Florida lives or dies with air conditioning. We need to rethink our sheltering system so its not only hardened but reasonably comfortable for an extended period of time.”
That means not only hardened evacuation facilities, but hardened utility infrastructure as well. Days on end without power leaves hurricane survivors demoralized, debilitated and at continued risk.
At a recent Public Service Commission hearing on hurricane preparedness, Bryan Olnick, vice president for distribution and reliability at Florida Power and Light, said that aging wooden utility poles are “very much a weak link in our system.” Concrete and steel poles and underground lines, are more reliable in hurricane conditions.
There is also a need to ensure that local and state hurricane response efforts are adequate to meet the immediate emergency. This point was driven home at the Hurricane Conference when current FEMA director Brock Long said responders should be prepared to “provide your own food and water and your own commodities to your citizens for the first 48 to 72 hours.”
“If you’re waiting on FEMA to run your commodities, that’s not the solution,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that we can be right on time to backfill everything you need.”
Beyond the question of immediate emergency response, Long’s predecessor, Fugate, worries that over-reliance on FEMA’s rescue capabilities, and on the tax-subsidized federal flood insurance program, provides a perverse incentive for states and communities to continue to allow development in storm vulnerable areas.
“We price risk too cheaply,” he said. “Can you imagine what the Florida Legislature would do if there was no FEMA and they were routinely getting hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in rebuilding and response costs? What they would do is change their behavior. We really need to look at how do we build and rebuild after disasters in a way that protects the homeowners and minimizes future disasters.”
In that regard even post-Andrew building code standards may not be sufficient if more cat 4 and 5 hurricanes are in store. Florida International University’s “Wall of Wind” test facility employs an array of powerful fans and blowers to generate Category 5 wind speeds of up 157 miles per hour to test more hurricane resilient infrastructure designs.
Olson said that, increasingly, hurricane preparedness may hinge on adopting “Code Plus” standards where possible. “If you take the current code and project what would be needed to get it one (hurricane strength) category further.”
“People and assets” can be better protected “if we build more strongly and locate more smartly…that is, if the vulnerability is reduced,” he said. “You can have growth, but you can’t have stupid growth.”
That said, Olson conceded “there are practical limits” to the ability to decrease vulnerability by building stronger and smarter.” In an era of increasing hurricane intensity, what happens to a community in the grip of an especially savage storm may ultimately be “in God’s hands.”
Just as Nora Zeale Hurston had prophesied.