Why was there so much damage from Hurricane Michael? The easy answer: Michael was a spectacularly strong hurricane. Near the top of the scale.
The rest of the answer is, however, that important people decided that homes and businesses and Air Force bases housing billions of dollars in airplanes should be built to a lower standard than Mother Nature’s reality dictated. They bet that a superstrong storm wasn’t going to come along. They lost the bet.
After 1992’s Hurricane Andrew revealed gaps in the details and implementation of the South Florida building code, Miami-Dade County said, “Never again.” Broward County and the Keys largely went along. The building code, building materials and inspection protocols were beefed up to meet the challenge of a top-end hurricane. The current South Florida code is a world standard.
Meanwhile, the politicians in North Florida fought to limit the strict standards that Miami-Dade implemented. They decided that one of those Andrew-like buzz saws was never going to hit the Panhandle, or most of the rest of the state, so lower standards were good enough.
They made this decision despite the fact that Hurricane Camille — one of two storms to hit the United States with higher winds than Andrew — was forecast to hit the Panhandle in 1969 before curving left at the last minute and hitting Mississippi. And there was Category 3 Hurricane Eloise, which hit just west of Panama City — doing significant damage there — in 1975. And Category 2 Hurricane Kate, which hit Mexico Beach in 1985. And despite several strong hurricanes that hit the Panhandle in the 19th century.
Strong building codes are a pain. Constant inspections are required because builders sometimes cut corners then cover them up with dry wall or stucco. But the only way to build a safe, enduring community in the hurricane zone is to be sure the buildings are constructed with the reality of the natural environment in mind.
It is horrendous what the people in Panama City and the surrounding area are dealing with. And it’s only just beginning. After Hurricane Andrew, some people suffered for months and years. It was wrenching to see and horrifying to live through.
Hopefully, the people in Panama City and the surrounding area who have had their lives turned upside down by Hurricane Michael will demand better leadership in the future.
The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. Miami-Dade has set world-class standards. What we need are leaders who understand that Florida is a sore thumb sticking out into hurricane alley. While South Florida may get hurricanes more often, the entire state has a hurricane history that includes ultra-strong hurricanes.
It’s up to all of us to demand that our representatives ignore the voices that favor weaker codes, and mandate standards that are strong enough to ensure our communities are livable, even after a major storm. The cost of disrupted communities, accentuated by the loss of jobs, that we are witnessing in the Panhandle is far greater in real dollars than building to appropriate standards in the first place. Add the cost in heartache and lives, and the real price of not taking action is impossible to calculate.
Bryan Norcross is a hurricane specialist at WPLG-TV in Miami and for the Weather Channel.
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