As Florida braces for a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, Joseph Myers, the state’s former director of emergency management, says he’s proud of the response he’s seen from his successors and is confident in their abilities to respond to the high-impact storm.
“This is the biggest (storm) of all, and that’s what we planned for,” Myers told CNN on Friday. “My hat’s off to them.”
Myers was Florida’s answer to Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 hurricane to strike the Sunshine State. After 20 years serving as the director of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management — where he oversaw the state’s response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 — Myers and several members of his team were brought to Florida in 1993 to overhaul the state’s emergency preparedness and response to disasters.
Hurricane Andrew, which struck one year earlier, was defined as much by its strength as it was by authorities’ slow response, which garnered statewide criticism. Residents accused local, state and federal authorities of not mobilizing quick enough to aid them during what was then the costliest natural disaster in US history.
The fallout led then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to assemble the Lewis Commission, which was tasked with reviewing storm preparation and response deficiencies, as well as recommending improvements.
The commission’s report made 94 recommendations for improvement, many in the key areas of emergency preparedness, response and recovery operations, and infrastructure.
Twenty-five years later, Hurricane Irma offers the first real test of Florida’s revised emergency plan. But is the state really ready for another major storm?
Under Myers, the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) began implementing a new statewide emergency plan, which mandated greater communication between government agencies and regular disaster drills.
The first step was to bring all the agencies together to teach them to communicate and coordinate their response, Myers said. “No one was talking to each other,” he said. “In disasters, you’ve got to erase the boundaries. You’ve got to make it one big team.”
Myers helped coordinate communications across numerous state and federal agencies, as well as private relief and aid organizations, that serve emergency functions — including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, National Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and American Red Cross.
His emergency preparedness plan also called for disaster drills that put agencies in worst-case scenarios, such as the need for mass evacuations.
As such, authorities created and coordinated staggered evacuation plans among state regions. They also Improved shelters and their capacities, Myers said.
Myers said this week’s evacuation orders in south Florida are a result of these carefully coordinated plans. “These things are paying off,” he said. “We went through those recommendations, and they still use them today.”
Improvements were also made at the federal level, specifically in the coordination of emergency drills across all levels of government.
According to Rafael Lemaitre, a former spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), federal, state and local officials now coordinate emergency drills at the start of every hurricane season.
“So if and when something happens, you’re not meeting each other for the first time,” Lemaitre said. “You already have that familiarity with each other.”
These drills, he said, are designed to “break” agencies’ expectations and their routines, so that they learn.
“It does you no good to prepare for a disaster you know you’re capable of responding to,” Lemaitre said.
Myers’ work to increase coordination between agencies is paying dividends today, he said.
In Andrew’s immediate aftermath, federal, state and local governments drew heavy criticism for their slow response to the storm. Each level of government had a plan for how to respond to the disaster, Myers said, but the “plans didn’t mesh.” The result was a breakdown in communications that slowed relief and aid efforts.
With Myers at the helm, the FDEM aimed to have first responders always ready for deployment. He said their goal was to go in “hard and fast” to assess the situation and respond to immediate needs.
“You size up what you see,” Myers said. “That tells you a lot about what you’re going to need in there, from the sampling of infrastructure and survivors and so forth.”
Technology has significantly improved communication and increased response time, said Myers and Lemaitre. In particular, smartphones and social media have made it easier to locate people in need of help, as well as communicate with the public.
Lemaitre lauded FEMA’s mobile app as a “a Swiss army knife of everything you might need before, during and after” a major weather event. The app is expected to provide victims of Hurricane Irma with information about nearby shelters, weather alerts, and even help them register for FEMA assistance should they need it.
Both men emphasized the state and federal government’s commitment to learning from each disaster. “After each one of these events, we didn’t just sit there and say, ‘Oh, we did a great job,'” Myers said. “We wanted to improve, improve, improve all facets.”
Following Hurricane Andrew, the Lewis Commission recommended Florida develop new building safety codes to lessen the dangers and costs of destroyed homes, office buildings and other vital infrastructure.
Hurricane Andrew “was a great wake-up call, because it was a test of our buildings — the first strong test that we had for many years,” Dan Lavrich, a licensed structural and civil engineer who lives in Davie, Florida, told CNN’s Miguel Marquez.
In 1994, South Florida overhauled its building code so that the next major hurricane wouldn’t cause as much damage.
Lavrich, a member of the Broward County Board of Rules and Appeals, which oversees city building departments that enforce the Florida Building Code, said the changes focused on the “protection of the envelope” of buildings, meaning roofing systems, windows and exterior walls.
Impact-resistant windows or storm shutters are required on buildings, and roofing standards were raised, too.
Lavrich has decided not to evacuate his pre-Andrew constructed home, he told Marquez.
“I’ve made a few modifications to it,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to have a problem.” Parts of Broward County are under mandatory evacuation.
“Andrew really did change how insurers and the public viewed catastrophe risk in Florida,” said Lynne McChristian, a Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute.
“Nobody knew before Andrew how devastating the damage could be,” she said. “They underestimated the risk.”
McChristian said the problem with building codes pre-Andrew is that they weren’t enforced as well as they could have been. But now, thanks to the overhauled building code, insurers “have a better sense of what they’re insuring.”
Despite improvements, Myers is under no illusions about how serious a threat Hurricane Irma poses. As he watches the coverage of the storm, all he can think is how much it looks like one of FDEM’s drills for a worst-case scenario.
“It’s scary,” he said.
Observers note that since Hurricane Andrew, south Florida has experienced significant development and population growth.
Today, the three-county area from Miami to Palm Beach is home to 6 million people — growing a half million since 2010.
Miami-Dade County, where Hurricane Andrew made landfall and Irma is now heading, is the most populated county in Florida, home to nearly 3 million people. It’s added hundreds of thousands of people since Hurricane Andrew. Nearby areas have also seen significant population growth.
That means thousands more homes are at risk from a major hurricane than they were in 1992. According to the Lewis Commission report, 180,000 people were left homeless because of Hurricane Andrew. Today, the risk is much higher.
Nevertheless, Gov. Rick Scott, who called the storm a “life-threatening situation,” says the state is ready.
“Florida is prepared,” he said. “Every single Florida guardsman that can be activated has already been deployed to prepare and respond to this storm.”