Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on May 7, 2020.

The Andrew Effect

Florida's response to the 1992 hurricane can teach us a lot about how to confront wildfire 

 It was fitting that this year’s NFPA annual conference and expo had been scheduled for Florida, a state with a lot to teach us about how regulatory action can help build resilience to natural disasters. C&E has been cancelled, but Florida’s lessons remain especially valuable for officials in California and elsewhere who are involved in complex efforts to blunt the impact of wildfire on their communities.

Florida has its share of wildfire, too, but hurricanes have historically been the state’s most destructive forces—none more so than Hurricane Andrew, which pummeled Miami-Dade County in 1992. Some 65,000 structures were destroyed, with thousands of homes and businesses reduced to concrete slabs—familiar sights to victims of recent California wildfires in communities including Paradise, Santa Rosa, and many others.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the devastation was so severe. In 1992, Florida’s statewide building code largely ignored some of the new science related to wind resistance for new residential construction, allowing unsafe structures to be built across the state. Meanwhile, insurers vastly underestimated the vulnerability of Florida homes to hurricane-force winds. Andrew resulted in insured losses of about $25 billion, or roughly $46 billion in today’s dollars. It was an unthinkable number at the time for a single incident; 11 insurance companies went out of business, and others retreated from the Florida market. A lot of this might sound familiar to anyone who has followed California’s recent wildfire disasters.

And yet, the aftermath of Andrew is regarded as a resounding success. After the hurricane, state regulators and insurers got to work fixing these now-obvious deficiencies. Regulators created a wind pool—a state-mandated risk-sharing program that all insurers pay into—to ensure adequate damage coverage for high-risk coastal properties. Meanwhile, insurers insisted the state develop a risk-based building code to keep roofs on buildings. By 2002, the new building code was in place statewide, along with wind velocity mapping to ensure the strongest protections in the most vulnerable areas.

Nearly 20 years later, safety experts agree that the code has made a difference in reducing property loss from hurricanes. In 2017, Hurricane Irma, more powerful than Andrew, wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and packed significant winds when it hit Florida. Even so, it resulted in about a quarter of the losses of Andrew, which experts attributed to the fact that nearly 80 percent of the structures in Irma’s path had been built to the stronger codes.

What does this mean for wildfire? To say that insurance and risk management for wildfires is complex would be a laughable understatement. But what Florida was able to do post-Andrew is a proof of concept. After unprecedented losses, Florida’s regulators, insurers, and policymakers realized that maintaining the status quo was an invitation for future disasters and loss; they absorbed important lessons and applied the necessary fixes. Three decades later, the state is now in a significantly better place. There is no reason to believe that officials in California and other vulnerable places around the world can’t take a similar approach with wildfire.

Through events like the Camp Fire and and this year’s Australian bushfires, we’ve experienced the wildfire version of Andrew repeatedly in recent years. At some point, the wildfire community needs its Irma moment, when a large fire sweeps over the landscape with limited damage to people and property. We won’t get there with building codes alone, but sound building design and siting are excellent places to start. If we add a bit of political will, cross-agency collaboration, and an assist from emerging technologies, we might get to a place where the wildfires of 2040 will simply be natural events, not disasters.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler