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National

25 Years Later: How Hurricane Andrew Impacted Emergency Response

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago today, we were monitoring one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall in the U.S.

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SIEGEL: Seven hundred thousand people in South Florida have evacuated their homes. In some shelters, food and water are in short supply. And as the storm heads across the Gulf of Mexico, coastal cities in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas brace for Hurricane Andrew to come their way.

On this day in 1992, Andrew hit Florida as a powerful Category 5 hurricane.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The howling of the wind was undescribable.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The estimates that FEMA have are preliminary, but they're in the billions, in the billions of dollars. And it's extraordinary.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's unbelievable that you have so much one day and the next day it's all gone.

SIEGEL: Fifteen people were directly killed by Hurricane Andrew in Florida. About 25 more would die in the weeks that followed. Twenty-five thousand homes in the state were destroyed, 100,000 were damaged. Hurricane Andrew changed many things - the science behind forecasting, how America's coasts are managed, how the federal government responds to disasters and what insurance companies do.

Twenty-five years ago, Craig Fugate was in Florida. He went on to become director of FEMA. He's now a consultant and joins us from a National Guard base in Montgomery, Ala., via Skype, where he's monitoring tropical storm Harvey. Welcome to the program.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Twenty-five years ago today, what was your sense of the devastation that Andrew was wreaking on Florida?

FUGATE: Well, we knew it was a major hurricane, and as far north as Gainesville we were opening up shelters for evacuees. But I think nobody really could imagine the devastation that was happening that Monday as the storm actually made landfall.

SIEGEL: How was that? Is forecasting that different today than it was then that we could not understand what a hurricane was doing to the same state?

FUGATE: Well, I remember that the Friday before Andrew made landfall it was barely a Category 1 hurricane. And we were discussing it on a statewide conference call, and most everybody from the Hurricane Center thought this would probably be a storm we would be dealing with midweek, no sense of real urgency. And then we started seeing the storm rapidly intensify. None of the models picked that up. That was actually being observed. And very quickly it changed from it - we're going to be dealing with it next week to we were dealing with it right now and starting a very large evacuation over the weekend.

SIEGEL: What's different today? I mean, can you imagine being part of the same conference call about a hurricane today? Or has the world changed that much since Hurricane Andrew?

FUGATE: Well, the models have definitely gotten a whole lot better about where it's going. And they're also showing improvements on rapid intensification, which we didn't have much skill at back when Hurricane Andrew was approaching Florida.

SIEGEL: One of the - one of the big questions we were asking about Hurricane Andrew was, would it do terrible damage in Miami-Dade County, in the biggest population center in south Florida? And I guess the answer was yes. But explain what happened.

FUGATE: Well, the storm went a little bit further south. Basically about from 122nd Street south was totally devastated. But nobody knew that because 911 was usually how we knew how bad it was. But the devastation was so great very few phone circuits survived. So the lack of 911 calls turned out not to be an indicator it wasn't that bad. It was a harbinger of how much devastation had actually occurred.

SIEGEL: The magnitude of property damage was colossal. It was in the millions and millions of dollars. How did the experience of Hurricane Andrew change the way we insure against hurricane damage?

FUGATE: Well, it nearly brought several insurers to the point of bankruptcy. And it forced the state of Florida into developing its own reassurance fund to encourage and maintain insurance markets. Insurance companies began changing how they covered and how they structured for hurricanes. Andrew showed the follies of how we were building and how we were pricing insurance, that it wasn't sustainable. And we still battle annually with insurance companies who are both leaving and sometimes entering the market, but all based upon their exposures to the hurricane risk.

SIEGEL: And you mentioned construction and how we build. As I've read, one of the problems people found in South Florida was that lots of roofs had been attached with staples. A lot of cheap oriented strand board had been used instead of plywood. All that changed.

FUGATE: Yeah. We - two things was making sure we were using the right building code for the risk, and the second part was making sure the people doing those inspections were trained and certified. Actually, under Governor Bush implementing a statewide unified building code that was enforced, we actually saw those improvements as early as the 2004 hurricane season when we had four hurricanes, that homes built to the newer codes performed much better than those that were built before it.

SIEGEL: We find you monitoring Hurricane Harvey. What do you see there? What do you expect?

FUGATE: So the forecasts are actually pretty good, forecasting for rainfall in a seven-day period, up to 20 inches across parts of Texas. That verifies this is going to be a catastrophic flood event. But the thing we know is a better forecast won't change outcomes. People have to act.

SIEGEL: Craig Fugate, former director of FEMA, thanks for talking with us today.

FUGATE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Craig Fugate, former director of FEMA, spoke to us via Skype from Montgomery, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.