After Andrew: Will We Do It All Over Again?

NEAL R. PEIRCE

September 09, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Will anything constructive be learned from Hurricane Andrew -- the storm that ravaged 165 square miles of South Florida and left more than 200,000 homeless before swirling across the Gulf of Mexico to inflict grave damage on Louisiana too?

Will South Florida's ruined homes be raised again, with the same materials and same building codes, on the same sites, awaiting yet another killer storm? Will our long-term response to ''Andrew,'' notwithstanding its $30 billion costs, boil down to some revised evacuation guidelines -- or overhaul of the politicized and fumbling Federal Emergency Management Agency?

Our collective myopia on where and how to site development was vividly summed up by the Miami Herald's Carl Hiaasen in a ''letter to the Deity'' column shortly after the storm:

''OK God, you got our attention. We've done some dumb things, starting with reckless planning and manic overdevelopment. In our lust to carve up this place and hawk it as a waterfront paradise, we crammed 4 million people along a flat and vulnerable coast. . . . We quintupled the population and idiotically called it progress. Now it's a disaster area.''

The population figures undergird his case. Florida today has close to 13 million people -- seven times as many as before World War II. The Miami metropolitan area has ballooned 68 percent in the last 20 years -- from 1.9 million to 3.2 million people.

Most atmospheric scientists are saying we're ripe for a 25- to 30-year cycle of accelerated hurricane activity. The next years will be more like the hurricane-busy '40s and '50s than the relative storm lull of the '60s to '80s when -- in the words of Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey -- ''we experienced a lemming-like stampede to the shore.''

More than 44 million people now live in hurricane-prone counties from Texas to Maine. In areas such as South Florida, coastal Louisiana and Texas, the barrier islands, coastlines and swamplands that survived hurricanes for millennia are now filled with subdivisions. The potential for destruction, says Mr. Pilkey, ''is several orders of magnitude greater than it was a few decades ago.''

''It's not good enough just to put everything back the way it was'' in post-Andrew Florida, says John DeGrove, leading spirit behind the state's growth-management legislation (which unfortunately was passed in the '80s rather than the '50s). The state's architects, engineers and politicians, he says, have to get cracking with radically revised planning.

Superior building codes, energetically enforced, may be one part of the answer. South Florida has some of America's stiffest codes, supposedly good enough so houses will withstand 125-mile-an-hour winds, or what the experts call a Category 3 storm. But Andrew was a Category 4 storm with sustained winds 140 miles per hour and gusts topping 160 mph.

Many old-fashioned houses, built with heavy masonry (often solid stone blocks) survived easily. But many newer subdivisions were flattened. Modern, glass-covered buildings were shattered.

Now it appears the halcyon growth days of the '80s brought us not only tax revolts and savings-and-loan scandals but such a lackadaisical, anti-regulatory mood that code enforcement was appallingly lax. It's as if Vice President Quayle's Competitiveness Council had already been at work.

Even after stiffened codes, there's the problem of mobile homes. Florida's packed with them. But in a big blow, they rip apart. Some act as projectiles destroying other buildings.

Policy makers are loath to ban mobile homes, the only affordable housing for hundreds of thousands. Yet as Mr. DeGrove notes: ''Mobile homes can't be built not to blow away. You can strap them down until hell freezes over and they'll still blow away.''

Looking to the future, he talks of ''vertical evacuation'' -- more high rises that weather storms better -- or enough 200-mph standard hurricane shelters so large-scale evacuation won't be required. James Murley, head of the environmental group Thousand Friends of Florida, says his group is ready to help localities in post-Andrew planning and redevelopment.

But will voluntary planning alone do the trick? Maybe radical new land-use rules have to be invented. One idea: Forbid new single-family homes unless they're sturdy enough to withstand at least a Category 4 storm.

Such houses will be expensive. For those who can't afford them, why not replace the collapsed matchstick houses with toughly built clustered housing? Why not build one such quality building on a block, maybe three stories high, leaving the rest of the land for shared parkland?

Stores could, where needed, go on the street fronts of these buildings. Concentrate these new structures on major arteries and perhaps mass transit would have more of a chance in the Land of the Private Auto.

The tough new message would be: If you choose to live in hurricane territory, you can't have your private castle, the all-American private house and barbecue pit and yard, unless you're rich enough to build a single super-house. Building codes could enforce that, for all new construction. And if Florida is weak-kneed about being so tough, maybe Uncle Sam should telegraph a message: Clean up your act, or don't expect the same billions in disaster relief next time.

Why, indeed, should all American taxpayers have to pay for the fruits of sub-grade, wink-an-eye-at-the-codes housing?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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