Building With the Weather in Mind

Everyone in the nation is concerned for the health and safety of Florida's citizens, besieged first by Hurricane Charley, then by Hurricane Frances, and now threatened by Hurricane Ivan. But it is strange that Florida is a state crowded with people yet unprepared for hurricane weather. Florida has more mobile homes than any other state in the U.S., and according to Carl Hiaasen of the Miami Herald, "every one of them is future storm debris, temporarily at rest." This pattern is typical of state and municipal development policies that are designed to benefit builders at the expense of homeowners and taxpayers. With many indicators pointing to progressively worse weather in the future, Florida has a responsibility to change its direction. It is a waste of money and human sorrow to build and rebuild without truly accounting for the realities of Florida hurricanes.

As tragic as the destruction of the past month has been, no one should have been surprised: Florida has always had hurricanes. In 1947, two hurricanes and a tropical storm hit the state in five weeks, causing tens of millions of dollars in damages. From 1966 to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida enjoyed a remarkable 26 years of hurricane-free weather, encouraging an explosion of growth. Over 4.5 million people now live on the South Florida coast from the Florida Keys to Palm Beach, a stretch of land that is ground zero for hurricanes.

In the calm from 1966 to 1992, developers built throughout South Florida, consuming half of the Everglades and covering the beaches with new construction. Loose zoning laws and poorly-enforced housing codes resulted in shoddy construction that could not stand up to a hurricane. This was proven by Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed 18,000 mobile homes across Florida and Louisiana: mobile homes that had been advertised as "Hurricane Resistive." Insured losses from the storm totaled $15.5 billion, a figure that bankrupted many small insurance companies.

Following the storm, the state changed their policies to maintain the private insurance market but gave only marginal attention to holding builders accountable. They created a Catastrophic Hurricane Fund that acts as a re-insurance policy for insurance companies. Of $7.4 billion in reported losses from Hurricane Charley, this fund will cover $2 billion. Initially many companies had threatened to pull out of the Florida market, a move that would have stopped the continued and rapid growth of new homes.

There are proven alternatives to Florida's current policy of poorly planned growth. Stricter codes for wind-proof buildings and rigorous enforcement of these codes would reduce storm losses. Builders throughout the state have fought these initiatives, placing a higher priority on making money than on saving lives and property. Rather than encouraging businesses and homeowners to continue to settle in the high-risk areas with subsidized insurance, the state government could offer incentives for long-term planning. Survivable housing, particularly along the coasts, is more expensive, but placing a priority on building safely would force Florida to grow at a slower rate and more carefully, saving both the government and the taxpayers in the long run.

Some suggest that the people of Florida can tolerate annual demolition or even benefit from the reconstruction spending. The Orlando Sentinel quoted Jim McCabe, a University of Louisville economics professor, as saying: "A year from now, the positive impact might still be felt." The residents and business owners of Florida should all agree that the destruction of their homes and storefronts is a positive impact. Everyone will be glad to rebuild, but the groups that benefit most from reconstruction are the developers and construction companies that fought against safe homes in the first place.

The decisions necessary for reconstruction are an important opportunity for Florida. After Hurricane Andrew the state implemented many changes, many of which were positive steps, but never questioned the foundation of the state on continued growth and construction. The costs of Charley and Frances should make Florida's citizens look at their future and move in a new direction.