The August Date That Lives in Infamy for Longtime South Florida Residents

Hurricane Andrew’s aftermath in South Florida. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

By Robert Sanchez

In their personal lives most folks have certain dates – the days, months, and years of occasions such as family birthdays and wedding anniversaries — that they know they’d better remember… or else. In addition, there are also certain dates each year that are unforgettable for the general public because of something historic that happened on those dates.

For instance, some of Florida’s many senior citizens are old enough to recall where they were and what they were doing on December 7, 1941, when the news broke that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II. It truly was, as President Franklin Roosevelt said in asking Congress for a declaration of war, “a date which will live in infamy.”

For many Floridians in the Baby Boom generation, November 23, 1963, is a date etched in their memory. That’s when an assassin in Dallas killed President John F. Kennedy. The event’s aftermath, including Jack Ruby’s killing of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, were rendered even more unforgettable because of round-the-clock TV coverage, a factor impossible for historic events just a few years earlier.

For the younger generations of Americans, September 11, 2001 is yet another date that truly will live in infamy as terrorists hijacked airliners and deliberately crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon.

9/11 marked the deadliest enemy attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. TV coverage, especially the scenes of persons leaping to certain death from the upper floors of the collapsing structures, added to the horror.

For persons who were residing in South Florida 25 years ago, another date – August 24, 1992 – is seared into the region’s collective memory. It may not be on a par with the historic dates that presaged World War II or the ongoing war on terror, but it nonetheless marked the start of a long period of disruption and suffering in Florida’s most populous region.

That’s the date when Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the U.S. mainland, came ashore during the night a few miles south of Miami.  As South Florida TV weatherman Brian Norcross correctly prophesied during his 23-hour-long on-air stint on Miami’s WTVJ, when the sun rose the following morning, the region would look quite different from the one the residents saw when the sun went down the previous evening.

Satellite image of Hurricane Andrew. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thousands of homes and businesses were reduced to debris. Widespread looting and lawlessness broke out – a reminder that disasters sometimes bring out the worst in some humans while also highlighting the selfless heroism of first responders and others.

Because of Hurricane Andrew, several property insurers doing business in Florida went broke. Moreover, the enormous damage and the costs – estimated at approximately $15 billion in 1992 dollars — would have been much worse had Andrew come ashore a mere 30 to 60 miles farther north, where it surely would have devastated the more populous areas of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Subsequent investigations determined that to a great extent, Hurricane Andrew – a natural weather phenomenon — was a manmade disaster. In the preceding years of rapid growth, developers and builders had routinely violated South Florida’s strict building codes while corrupt elements among the various local governments’ building inspectors and code enforcers had looked the other way. It’s a no-brainer to learn that a home’s roof can more easily peel off and blow away if, say, it’s not firmly anchored to a sturdy structure underneath.

In the wake of the destruction, Hurricane Andrew did at least bring about some positive changes. Building codes were toughened, enforcement was more closely monitored, and the tie-down regulations affecting Florida’s thousands of mobile homes were tightened.

Also improved was the state government’s ability to respond to future storms and other disasters ranging from wildfires to riots. A state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center was built on a site in the Southwood development in southeastern Tallahassee. The Center coordinates the activities of various state and local government agencies plus private organizations such as the Red Cross.

To combat rumors and keep the public up-to-date, the EOC also feeds the news media the most accurate available information about storms and their impact – deaths and injuries, persons in shelters, homes without electric power, etc.

Yet despite the lessons gleaned from Hurricane Andrew and its aftermath, troubling problems remain. One is the kind of complacency evident in the run-up to Andrew.  Alphabetically it was the first among 1992’s storms, but when Andrew hit on August 24, it was not only the first storm to hit in a hurricane season that had begun 85 days earlier, but it was the first major storm to strike the region in decades.

Moreover, in a state such as Florida, with hundreds of thousands of new residents settling in the state each year, a prolonged lull means that most residents will not have experienced a hurricane firsthand and, thus, will have no relevant experience to guide them as they prepare. This can breed complacency on one hand and/or a tendency to panic on the other.

Worse, much of Florida’s growth has occurred on barrier islands and in low-lying coastal areas that are vulnerable to flooding triggered by storm surges, those walls of water that build up and are pushed along by in-shore winds atop normal tidal cycles.

Together these factors have presented headaches for property insurers. Although the state has built up its catastrophe fund and has largely depopulated Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run “insurer of last resort” without which transactions in Florida’s vital real estate industry could have ground to a halt following the spate of storms in 2004-05, other insurance-related problems persist.

In some of Florida’s sinkhole-prone regions, for instance, insurers are being targeted by personal injury lawyers exploiting a fraud-ripe practice known as “assignment of benefits.” Because of these practices and others that reflect the incredible power and influence that wealthy personal injury lawyers wield in Florida, some property insurers have been attempting to reduce their level of risk by canceling or “non-renewing” policies in those regions and/or by filing requests to substantially raise their rates.

Florida can do nothing to appease Mother Nature. The data show that it’s statistically probable and historically inevitable that hurricanes and destructive tropical storms will continue to come ashore from time to time in the years ahead, if not a 2017 season now nearing its statistical peak.

In the future as in the past, though, the damage inflicted by natural weather phenomena may pale in comparison with the damage inflicted by human ignorance and venality. As far as the complacency factor goes, however, it’s not likely to be a problem for those longtime South Florida residents who endured a terrifying ordeal when Hurricane Andrew visited during that dark night 25 years ago.

This Florida Verve article was originally published on August 25, 2017.