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What lessons has Florida learned from past hurricane mistakes?

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

Despite the 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 models, Hurricane Ian was a deadly storm that has become the costliest in state history. .

It killed 149 people, the most fatalities from a storm in Florida 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 the sure.

For the engineers and disaster experts who 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 September 22.

What alarms them is that they know how to mitigate property damage with resilient construction and prevent deaths, especially those related to storm surge and inland flooding, but Floridians are not heeding the warnings.

“We are seeing an overall decrease in direct deaths with a corresponding increase in indirect deaths,” Jamie Rhome, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said at the Governor’s Annual 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 the recovery is still underway, and it canceled its annual statewide training exercise for emergency responders because “we literally practiced on the real life,” said Alecia Collins, a spokeswoman. for the agency

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says his community is eager for the state to gather recommendations and prepare for the next disaster. His city is conducting a simulated evacuation exercise on June 6 “to assess our readiness and ability to conduct a citywide evacuation in the face of an approaching hurricane.

“The goal of a state after-action report is for you to say what we did right or what we did wrong so we don’t repeat it,” he said. “Most of the people who died were older people who had trouble moving, or people who thought they could get over it. What effort is being made to change communication?”

Communication failures and the wrong approach by emergency officials can be deadly, Rhome said in his conference presentation.

“You have 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 a rating of 1 to 5 based on sustained wind speed. He said the scale does not take into account storm surge, rain flooding and tornadoes, all hazards that proved deadly last year.

The forecasters’ message was consistent, Rhome said: “A major hurricane will move into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. And it will probably affect the west coast of Florida. … These are messages and delivery times that, for those of us who are dinosaurs, we never thought possible and probably saved numerous lives, but the story was never told.”

However, one of the incorrect narratives that emerged is that the forecast was abruptly changed when Ian “took a hard right hook”. [and] cut everyone off by surprise,” he said.

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 that Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials championed 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 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 direct hurricane deaths are attributable to freshwater flooding, 15% are due to waves or rip currents, the 12% is due to wind and 11% is the result of storm surge.

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

The message should also focus on introducing the dangers to newcomers to the state, he said, due to the “large number of people experiencing a hurricane for the first time.”

David O. Prevatt, Professor of Civil and Coastal Engineering at the University of Florida Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, studied the damage patterns and storm surge from Hurricane Ian for an interim report submitted to the Florida Building Commission.

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

“When we rise to the occasion, we learn from our failures,” he said Thursday. “I submit that our learning from failure in the context of wind hazards is too slow and the growth of housing, which is being built in highly vulnerable areas, far exceeds our ability to do anything 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 144 homes were lost, underscored that older homes with slabs built before code Florida’s updated construction standards, and manufactured or mobile homes, both on the coast and inland, could not withstand the impact of winds or flooding.

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

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

As of early May, the National Flood Insurance Program had paid out nearly $4 billion to policyholders for damage from Hurricane Ian, and that didn’t take into account damage suffered by homeowners who had no flood insurance.

Prevatt said he saw the same damage patterns on Ian that he had seen 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 strengthen our communities or withdraw and move them away from these intense events, we will repeat what we have seen here five, 10, 20 years from now.”

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

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

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

“Is there a responsibility for that community to put in place a policy so that people who don’t have insurance, people who are living hand-to-hand, are just as protected as people who live in a reinforced concrete house?” she asked. “The policies we set dictate what we will build.”

Karthik Ramanathan, vice president of research at Verisk, a risk assessment and data analysis firm that made the first damage estimates, said that 30 years after building codes were updated in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, inland counties Florida saw a significant number of damage claims, primarily for roof damage.

“It’s mind blowing, to see the same state that pioneered wind design, not just in the United States, but around the world, is seeing some of the same problems 30 years later at an event like Ian,” he said. on the Florida Insurance Roundup podcast.

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