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Florida Learned Its Lesson From Hurricane Andrew in 1992

October 10, 1995

NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The painful lessons of Hurricane Andrew three years ago made life easier for those in Opal’s path.

Beachfront residents in the Florida Panhandle evacuated en masse after being warned that Opal could grow as strong as Andrew, which flattened sections of South Florida in 1992.

Some of the nation’s elite rescue workers arrived even before Opal and began searching for victims last Thursday, the morning after. Power has been restored steadily. Relief centers with food and water were set up promptly. Price gougers were subject to a state crackdown.

``For a disaster, it went pretty smoothly,″ said Leon Brown, a businessman in Destin who lost the top floor of his glass company to Opal.

While damage was put at almost $2 billion in insured losses _ the nation’s third-costliest storm, behind Hugo in 1989 and Andrew _ no one was found dead or injured on Florida’s barrier islands, and officials credited the evacuation.

Opal claimed two victims in Florida, one from an inland tornado and the other from a cleanup accident, and 20 victims overall in the South, plus 10 in Mexico.

In contrast, said Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, ``Andrew was a disaster in every sense. Our effort to respond was a disaster.″

Andrew caused $17 billion in insured losses, killed 55 in the United States and the Bahamas _ 41 of them in Florida _ and brought extended chaos and misery that exposed the inadequacy of government response plans.

Many people living along the beach had refused to leave, and others fled to the southwestern Dade suburbs, where Andrew flattened homes and businesses like a giant lawn mower.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency took four days to start helping Dade County, which was reeling with a quarter-million homeless people and plagued by looting and roving gunmen.

Kate Hale, Dade County emergency director at the time, demanded to know: ``Where the hell is the cavalry?″

An overhaul of FEMA procedures since then has allowed the agency to move immediately on potential disasters rather than waiting for a formal request.

State officials also streamlined preparations, setting up backup communication systems, activating the National Guard and communicating more with federal and local agencies before the hurricane hit.

``Andrew changed things dramatically for the state. Everyone is now organized as to their exact job and area of responsibility,″ said Jo Miglino, spokeswoman for the state Division of Emergency Management. ``It’s much more of a team.″

This time, as Opal closed in, 100,000 residents fled inland ahead of the hurricane’s 125 mph sustained winds, gusts up to 145 mph and a tidal surge of 15 feet. Many evacuees recalled Andrew’s 145 mph sustained winds and 200 mph microbursts.

``People were motivated by what Andrew had done,″ Brown said. He and his wife, Paula, drove in crawling traffic to Georgia.

Teams of elite rescue workers, coordinated by FEMA, began searching flattened homes and condo complexes on the narrow barrier islands the morning after the storm.

The rescue workers, drawn from many of the nation’s largest cities, found a dozen dazed residents who had ridden out the hurricane in their battered homes on Okaloosa Island.

FEMA has been noted for its aggressive handling of several recent disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing, under Director James Lee Witt.

Bruce Baughman, FEMA operations chief, said that since Andrew, the agency tries to anticipate a state’s needs and has a communication network, agency representatives and search teams ready the moment the state calls.

Opal raised some different questions: how to handle traffic gridlock when thousands of Panhandle residents evacuate northward; how much beach development and rebuilding to allow; and how to handle increasing pressure on Florida’s property insurance industry.

Smaller communities in Walton and Gulf counties complained they were not getting as much help as more populated areas. And the recovery has months to go.

But most agreed the first stages were handled smoothly.

``FEMA definitely got its act together,″ said Destin Fire Chief Tuffy Dixon. ``We got excellent help from the federal, state and local emergency people this time. These are lessons learned totally from Andrew.″

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