WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida has survived so many major hurricanes that the lessons the state has learned the hard way could fill a textbook for disaster preparation and response.
Perhaps no truth is more frightening than the fact that a storm need not reach Category 5 strength — or even strike land — to wreak havoc on the jutting Florida Peninsula and its 21.3 million residents.
“Every disaster comes with its own little hiccups,” said Bill Johnson, director of emergency management in Palm Beach County and a 30-year veteran of working Florida storms. “My mantra is, ‘I don’t want to repeat the same mistake twice.’”
Hurricane Dorian creeped toward Florida on Monday and was expected to move “dangerously close” to the state’s coast by Tuesday night. As the state prepares for what could be major wind and rain, here are five lessons that Florida has learned about hurricanes.
Mobile homes are safer than they used to be — but still vulnerable.
As of 2017, Florida had around 850,000 mobile homes, more than any other state. It also has some of the nation’s most stringent standards for mobile home construction and installation, another legacy of Hurricane Andrew.
The standards were credited with helping many mobile homes survive Hurricane Irma in 2017. But homes built before the new codes went into effect continue to concern authorities.
The Manufactured Housing Institute, an industry group, says that mobile homes, when properly installed, are as safe as traditional homes in a storm. But Jeff Goldberg, director of emergency management in Walton County, in the Florida Panhandle, said his agency often called for the evacuation of mobile homes, trailers and recreational vehicles in advance of a serious storm “because they can’t handle the wind loads.”
Goldberg said that flying debris might also be a more serious threat for mobile home residents than for those who live in traditional houses.
The road by a trailer home community in Lake Worth, Florida, flooded on Monday even as neighboring streets remained dry.
Nursing homes require special attention.
This lesson became evident in the wake of tragedy in September 2017, when a dozen residents of a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home died in the intense heat after Hurricane Irma. The storm had caused widespread power failures, and the nursing home, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, lost its air-conditioning. Police announced last month that they had charged four employees in the deaths, which were ruled homicides by a medical examiner.
The episode shocked Florida lawmakers into action, compelling them to pass a law that requires nursing homes to have backup generators and enough fuel to maintain comfortable temperatures during power failures. On Friday, the Reuters news agency reported that a number of nursing homes were waiting on temporary generators to be delivered. Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Monday that 72 nursing homes and assisted living facilities had been evacuated as Hurricane Dorian neared.
Patrick Manderfield, a spokesman for the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration, said in an email on Monday that his agency had confirmed that every assisted-living center and nursing home in the coastal counties in the storm’s potential path “either has a generator on site or has plans to evacuate.”
“AHCA is deploying staff to any facility in the coastal counties for which we do not have current updated information on their generator status,” Manderfield added.
Storm surges cause ruinous flooding and wipe out roads and beaches.
Hurricane Matthew never made landfall in Florida in 2016. Instead, it hugged the state’s Atlantic coast in a path similar to the one forecast for Hurricane Dorian. But Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm, nevertheless flooded St. Augustine. Hurricane Irma did the same the following year, leaving St. Augustine and Jacksonville underwater, despite never hitting either city directly.
“The numbers really get astronomical in terms of amount of damage,” said Stephen Leatherman, a professor of earth and environment at Florida International University in Miami.
Few hurricanes have historically struck the state’s northern Atlantic coast, Leatherman noted. Yet Hurricane Matthew’s storm surge still wiped out significant chunks of State Road A1A, a main oceanfront route. Big storm waves also eat the sand that Florida depends on to market its miles of picturesque beaches.
“Matthew just ripped up the beaches all the way up,” Leatherman said. “So it doesn’t have to come on shore to do a lot of damage.”
Strong building codes matter.
When Hurricane Michael flattened parts of the Florida Panhandle last year, it exposed a serious weakness in the state’s building code: Stringent rules to make homes along the Atlantic coast resistant to fierce winds were more lenient in the Panhandle, a region historically less prone to hurricanes. Older properties in the scenic town of Mexico Beach, Florida, did not stand a chance against that storm, a Category 5 beast.
Florida’s construction regulations improved after Hurricane Andrew, another Category 5 storm, pummeled Miami-Dade County in 1992. Stronger homes were also built after a rash of hurricanes tore through Florida 15 years ago, said W. Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It was like the Three Bears: pre-Hurricane Andrew, after Hurricane Andrew and then after 2004,” said Fugate, who is also a former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“This is one of the lessons that I’m afraid Florida has to keep relearning,” he said. “In between periods of a lot of hurricane activity, there’s a tendency to say, ‘The building codes are making homes too expensive, it’s too difficult, maybe we overreached.’ And now we look at the last couple of years and look at how wise we were.”
Power failures are inevitable.
Eric Silagy, president and chief executive of Florida Power & Light, said that the state’s giant utility had to seriously rethink the way it delivered electricity after 2004 and 2005, when he said seven hurricanes slammed into Florida, including Hurricane Wilma, a Category 3 storm that necessitated the replacement of tens of thousands of power poles and left some Floridians without power for as long as two weeks.
The ensuing improvements, totaling more than $4 billion, have not guaranteed that the state will not lose power. Hurricane Irma left as many as 15 million people without power in 2017. But officials with the utility said that they were learning from past mistakes and embracing new technology.
Concrete power poles have replaced many older wooden ones. New switches installed in transformers allow the devices to be reset without sending out repair crews. All 5 million customers have meters that allow the company to know when someone has no power, even if they are out of town. Drones buzz over neighborhoods after storms to help identify problems with the lines.
Company officials said they had also focused on improving electrical connections with critical infrastructure like hospitals and 911 centers, and vastly improved plans for staging resources before a storm hits.
“We did a lot of things,” Silagy said.
However, he added: “There is no one silver bullet. There is no such thing as a hurricane-proof electric grid.”