Friday, September 13, 2019

Hurricane Dorian: Florida hardened for storms, but 185 mph winds showed goalposts have moved - Palm Beach Post

Hurricane Dorian: Florida hardened for storms, but 185 mph winds showed goalposts have moved - Palm Beach Post


Hurricane Dorian: Florida hardened for storms, but 185 mph winds showed goalposts have moved - Palm Beach Post

Posted: 12 Sep 2019 09:04 AM PDT

After Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami-Dade County in 1992, builders and lawmakers responded with new codes that girded South Florida homes and buildings for Category 5 winds.

After multiple storms swept through Florida in 2004 and 2005, Florida Power & Light spent billions hardening its system to withstand winds up to 145 mph.

In their day, those precautions seemed nearly foolproof — after all, Category 4 and 5 storms were mercifully rare.

Now, though, Mother Nature has moved the goalposts. Hurricane Dorian pounded the Bahamas this month with sustained winds of 185 mph and cartoonishly extreme gusts of 220 mph.

Because it was so intense and slow-moving, and because it so narrowly missed Palm Beach County, Dorian forced Floridians to face the possibility of massive destruction, despite the state's decades-long efforts.

"It was almost us," said Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "Whatever the building code is in the state of Florida — and we have the best building code in the country — it was not built for Hurricane Dorian."

Nor are Florida's standards designed for two 2017 storms. Hurricane Irma achieved 180 mph wind speeds, and Hurricane Maria touched 175 mph.

"The Dorian experience is very sobering," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and chief executive of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes in Tallahassee. "We're getting these rapidly intensifying, longer-duration events."

The spate of major storms with off-the-charts winds raises the distinct possibility that, for all of Florida's efforts at storm-proofing, more work must be done.

FPL, the state's largest utility, has spent $4 billion to improve its system since 2005, replacing many wooden poles with concrete poles and burying power lines in some places. The utility hardened its grid to withstand 145 mph winds in Palm Beach County and to lower levels in other parts of the state.

As Dorian menaced on Sept. 1, FPL President Eric Silagy gave a bleak outlook about how power lines would fare in a direct hit from one of the strongest hurricanes on record. He predicted "significant destruction."

"This would not be a restoration of power," Silagy said. "We would have to rebuild part of our system. Concrete poles could be snapped in these kind of winds. Homes will be destroyed."

FPL got a wake-up call from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. That storm knocked out power to 3.2 million FPL customers, and the utility needed 18 days to fully turn the lights back on.

After that experience, FPL embarked on a system-wide hardening. The investment seemingly has paid dividends. Irma knocked out power to 4.5 million FPL customers, but the utility needed just 10 days to fully restore electricity.


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Of course, Irma delivered a glancing blow, not a direct hit.

"If the 180- to 200-mph storm becomes the norm, the utilities are going to have to look at ways to deal with a new kind of storm," said Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, the state's independent advocate for utility customers.

Kelly noted that FPL passed on the $4 billion cost of system upgrades to its customers. Ratepayers would bear the cost of further improvements, he said.

"You can harden against anything," Kelly said. "It's just, how much do you want to spend? You always have to weigh the benefits against the costs."

Meanwhile, there's no easy solution for keeping the lights on in a storm. Burying power lines protects against high winds. But if the underground lines are covered by storm surge, the electricity stays off until the flood recedes.

The new breed of storms has blown away another bit of conventional wisdom, which is that the most intense hurricane winds would hit only Miami and Fort Lauderdale while sparing the rest of the state.

"We're putting way too much faith in wind maps, which on their best day are just a projection," Chapman-Henderson said. "Storms are not confining themselves to Southeast Florida."

That reality was underscored last year, when Hurricane Michael battered the Panhandle with 155 mph winds. It wasn't quite a Category 5 storm, but Michael caused $25 billion in property damage — and forced storm experts to rethink the realm of possibility.

Before Michael, many thought the Panhandle possessed natural protection from intense storms.

"We didn't think that Michael could occur," said Jack Nicholson, director of the Florida Catastrophic Storm Risk Management Center at Florida State University. "We thought the trees would slow down the winds. Well, that was wrong."

Building codes in the Panhandle and other parts of Florida aren't as strict as they are in South Florida. Many Central Florida homeowners don't even have shutters, Henderson-Chapman said.

Henderson-Chapman says Florida should extend Miami-Dade's exacting building standards statewide. Builders long have complained about the costs of such a move — adding thousands of dollars to the cost of a home would squeeze out some buyers.

Henderson-Chapman said hardening homes adds about 1 percent to 5 percent to the price of a new home, a premium she called reasonable.

"We can still say Florida has the strongest code," Henderson-Chapman said. "But is it as strong as it could be, given the changes in storms? No."

jostrowski@pbpost.com

@bio561

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