After Hurricane Andrew ripped off roofs and knocked down homes two decades ago, South Florida beefed up lax building codes to better handle high winds.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the main focus Wednesday at the 27th annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference was high water, from inland flooding but especially from storm surge, which historically has been the most damaging and deadliest hurricane hazard.
But another issue that intruded on the conference came from Washington, D.C., where the unstable political atmosphere has generated a budget-cutting storm called sequestration, the impacts of which still remain uncertain on both hurricane forecasters and federal agencies that pick up the pieces after hurricanes.
Gov. Rick Scott, in a brief welcoming speech to some 1,500 emergency managers and disaster experts gathered in Fort Lauderdale, said he was worried the mandatory across-the-board federal cuts could result in furloughs or less training for National Guard soldiers.
“My big concern is that while they say sequestration will stop during a disaster, are they going to be ready” when it happens, he said.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, and Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in interviews and a news conference that the cuts wouldn’t affect ongoing forecasts, jeopardize public safety or federal response to disasters.
Knabb said the National Weather Service was still weighing options and while furloughs were one possibility, they would not come while the tropics were active. As for the National Guard, Fugate said it was a governor’s decision to call soldiers out and always a state’s bill to pay.
Knabb, in his talk to emergency managers, said that last year should serve as a “wake-up call” when the 2013 season opens on June 1. It’s a year that experts once again predict will be very active.
“The 2012 hurricane season was about water, water, water,’’ Knabb said. “Debby, Isaac, Sandy, all about water, whether it came from the ocean or the sky, it was all about water.”
It was the Atlantic Ocean — driven up rivers, into the streets of Lower Manhattan and across the Jersey shore — that killed most of Sandy 72 victims in the Northeast and racked up much of the estimated $75 billion in damage. In Florida, tropical storms Isaac and Debby left behind pockets of severe flooding from western Palm Beach County to Pensacola.
While forecasters and emergency managers have long stressed the threat of surge, they’re striving for new and more effective ways to deliver the message to residents who often underestimate it. The NHC has expanded its surge predictions and is experimenting with new, easier-to-understand graphics showing potential surge that Knabb said could be available on the NHC website as early as mid-season and definitely by next year. By 2015, he said, forecasters will begin issuing formal surge watches and warnings to go along with similar watches and warnings for wind.
In Miami-Dade, emergency managers delivered the same message last week, unveiling new hurricane evacuation zones that cover nearly three-quarters of the population. Though no one storm would force the county to evacuate 1.8 million people, the dramatically expanded zones underline the potential impacts of surge in much of low-lying South Florida.
It’s a concern that two speakers, Fugate and Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs, warned might increase with rising sea levels in coming decades.
Both stressed the increasing urgency to re-evaluate how and where homes and businesses are built and re-built after storms. Jacobs pointed to a stretch of A1A in Fort Lauderdale that collapsed during Sandy, which never made landfall in South Florida, cautioning that climate change models suggest storms will be bigger and stronger in the future. Residents who once rejected sand dunes because they blocked their view now want the natural surge buffers.
Fugate said residents in coastal areas devastated by Sandy are wrangling now with a difficult and potentially expensive question: “Do we build back to what we knew or do we build to the future?”