Tropical Storm Isaac took aim at the Sunshine State just as Floridians were commemorating the 20-year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which is often considered the bellwether event that forever changed the state and its residents.
Twenty years ago last Friday, Hurricane Andrew pummeled South Florida, leaving massive destruction in its wake. Thirty-nine Floridians lost their lives, 180,000 were left homeless and 82,000 businesses were destroyed. The storm caused record damage totaling $41 billion in 2012 dollars.
Hurricane Andrew was also the wake-up call for insurers, emergency responders and officials at the federal, state and local levels that led to many of today’s advancements in disaster preparation and response.
For instance, scientists now understand the nature of hurricanes much better and can predict their path and intensity with greater accuracy. On average, a five-day track forecast is more accurate today than a three-day forecast was prior to Hurricane Andrew. Although far from perfect, this forecast gives residents in affected areas more time to prepare or to evacuate. And that can save lives.
Today, homeowners affected by a storm have more options to get in touch with emergency responders and their insurance company. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, there was such a tremendous loss of infrastructure and damage to power and telephone service that insurers were extremely challenged in locating and communicating with their policyholders.
Residents in South Florida depended upon a single TV station for news about Hurricane Andrew. People now receive emergency information from a wide array of media outlets, including The Weather Channel and other cable news programs. Of course, the most significant change has been the emergence of the Internet, with advances in mobile technology and social media platforms keeping people in touch like never before.
Insurers have embraced this new technology and are able to respond more quickly to natural disasters to provide more efficient claims services.
Insurers are able to dispatch large amounts of information to policyholders before, during, and after a storm. They employ mobile response units to surge into affected communities as soon as it is safe — to locate victims, offer assistance, and speed up the claims process. These units have evolved into specially outfitted claims offices designed to quickly help residents get back on their feet after a catastrophic event.
Insurers have also advocated for legislation enacting stronger and better-enforced building codes and other hazard mitigation programs. Not only do these initiatives reduce public sector response and recovery costs, but they can save lives, minimize property damage, protect the environment, and promote the long-term financial stability of taxpayers and businesses.
Enhanced building practices also improve the availability and affordability of homeowners coverage for consumers. For each dollar increase in construction costs associated with the adoption of stronger minimum code provisions for wind and seismic protections, there is a long-term savings of $3 to $16. Homes built to modern building codes were found to suffer 40 percent less damage.
Unfortunately, hurricanes will always be a part of life for residents of Florida and the Gulf Coast. Floridians will remain on the alert because of Hurricane Isaac. But thanks to the lessons learned from Andrew, residents are better prepared than 20 years ago. And insurers are better prepared to rebuild communities affected by natural disasters today.
David A. Sampson is president and chief executive officer of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which represents more than 1,000 homeowners, auto and business insurance companies that write 37.4 percent of the nation’s property and casualty insurance.