As a 9-year-old child, I vividly remember the day Hurricane Andrew touched down in 1992. My family was living in the Upper Florida Keys at the time, and we soon realized its utter devastation to South Florida, with entire blocks leveled by Andrew’s vicious winds.
As my family had long been in the construction business, we were at the forefront of the rebuilding effort, and spent the next several years moving around South Florida towns helping put neighborhoods back together. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scale of destruction I witnessed walking through those hollowed-out communities as a child.
With Hurricane Irma, it is now the Keys experiencing Florida’s most painful aftermath.
For my relatives still in Key Largo and the thousands of other families residing on the islands, it’s going to be a long and painful recovery process. What must be considered now is why Florida managed to withstand what it did, and what lessons can be applied going forward.
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One of the key lessons learned following Andrew was the need for stricter building codes to resist the intense 150 mph-plus winds that swept across the region.
As California modernized its building standards and retrofitting in the aftermath of powerful earthquakes in 1989 and 1994, Florida, and Miami in particular, quickly enacted measures to strengthen our building codes as well as establish a Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to serve as a reinsurance backstop. By improving evacuation routes, establishing low-lying and high-risk areas, and improving the materials used — like concrete, hurricane windows and doors, and stronger shingles, trusses, and roofs – many steps were made to harden South Florida’s structures.
These measures not only ensured that our region’s continuing growth was carefully managed and protected, but that structures built after 1992 could take the power of Irma-force winds much more heartily than homes built during the previous six decades.
Sadly, just a month earlier when Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, America saw the effects of devastating winds and floods attack a metropolis without these kinds of zoning and building regulations. Houston was unprepared for the level of destruction it experienced from both a safety and a civic-planning standpoint. As Sen. Bill Nelson reported last week after surveying the less-than-feared damage in the Keys, “This is the result of the new building codes, which is a lesson we learned from Hurricane Andrew.”
Similarly, there can be no denying the effect that climate change is having on our weather patterns.
The impact of our warming planet will likely lead to even stricter zoning and building codes to account for the rising sea levels visible in places like South Beach — even on days without a cloud in sky. When six inches of water spill onto Alton Road at high tide in February, you can be sure that climate trends are responsible; those hotels and condos weren’t built underwater.
After the damage is assed in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, and victims of Harvey, Irma, and Maria begin to rebuild their lives, I hope these communities can come together to take a holistic view of what must be done to prepare for the next intense hurricane.
We must maintain strong building codes, strengthen flood insurance programs, and forcefully acknowledge the reality that rising sea temperatures caused by made-man climate change are negatively impacting our way of life. This should be a bipartisan task that finds support with bipartisan solutions.
There can be no more burying our heads in the sand by being afraid to even mention the words “climate change” aloud.
Florida may have been spared the ultimate worst with Irma, but nonetheless with dozens dead and billions in damage, the recovery — and calls to action — are just getting started.