Irma may be more costly, but damage will fall short of Andrew

The specter of Hurricane Andrew haunted Florida last week. Though its winds — which lifted the roofs from tens of thousands of homes — had vanished 25 years ago, the storm remained the stuff of Floridian nightmares.

And yet, Hurricane Irma seemed destined to be worse.

It was among the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. Much broader than Andrew and taking aim at several major cities, its violence could touch far more people.

“Hurricane Andrew is one of the worst storms in the history of Florida,” Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference as Irma approached. “This is much worse and more devastating on its current path.”

But as Floridians took stock of the damage Monday, it appeared that although Irma affected a far broader swath of the state, it was not the terror that Andrew had been.

“Irma and Andrew were as different as two hurricanes can be,” said Bryan Norcross, senior hurricane meteorologist at the Weather Channel, who earned fame as the chief meteorologist at Miami’s NBC affiliate when Andrew struck. “The damage in Irma is significantly less intense, but it is vastly more widespread.”

It will take weeks to total up the damage, but at first blush, the Irma toll falls short of Andrew. Two deaths in Florida have been attributed to Irma: One person died in a car accident in Monroe County, and another person died falling off a ladder while attaching storm shutters, according to reports. The count might rise as rescue workers reach harder-hit areas.

By contrast, Hurricane Andrew was directly blamed for 15 deaths in Florida, a figure many thought was astonishing given the power of the storm.

“The direct loss of life seems remarkably low considering the destruction caused by this hurricane,” a National Hurricane Center report said after Andrew.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Andrew reportedly destroyed more than 25,000 homes and damaged 101,000 others. There are no such figures available for Irma, but experts say early assessments suggest that in Florida, the number of homes destroyed by Irma will be significantly lower.

In Andrew, the Category 5 winds stripped roofs off and flicked away roof trusses as if they were matchsticks. Two-by-fours became airborne and damaged other homes. In some mobile-home parks, no walls remained vertical, the winds leaving only junkyard heaps of sodden clothing, appliances and furniture.

“We don’t really have all the damage assessments from where Irma’s core hit, but from the pictures I’ve seen … the major structures are still standing,” said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center and now a hurricane specialist at WPLG-TV in Miami. With Irma, “there will be weaker structures and mobile homes and carports and trees down. Most houses are still standing. I’m thanking God that we didn’t have more.”

Irma’s winds weren’t strong enough to destroy many homes, unless they were in the path of falling trees or falling debris, Norcross said.

“Homes caught in the storm surge in the Keys were obviously destroyed, but the total numbers there are not like in a metropolitan area,” he said.

Still, when measured by the cost of insured damages, the far-ranging problems of Irma may prove more troublesome than even those in Andrew, which at the time was the costliest hurricane to make landfall in the United States.

Catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimates that insurance companies will pay losses in the United States resulting from Hurricane Irma ranging from $20 billion to $40 billion.

By contrast, such losses in Andrew were estimated at $27 billion, adjusted for inflation.

Those figures seem to rank Irma and Andrew at similar levels. But they do not include flood losses on homes, and with those, Irma could prove to have a higher total.

Flood losses, which are typically covered by the federal flood insurance program, were minimal in Hurricane Andrew. Wind, not water, caused the vast majority of that storm’s wreckage. It is too early to tell how much such claims will amount to in Irma, which appears to have caused substantial flooding. About 41 percent of homes in the portions of South Florida at most risk of flooding have flood insurance policies, according to Syndeste, a risk management firm.

So why hasn’t Irma proven to be – so far – as catastrophic as Andrew?

Experts cite two reasons.

For one thing, Floridians learned from Andrew. The building codes got tougher throughout the state, especially in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which reportedly have the toughest hurricane standards in the country. In addition, many Floridians invested in hurricane shutters, thanks in large part to the insurance companies that made it expensive for those who didn’t.

Perhaps even more important, Irma fell short of the forecasts. The monster that Irma was grew tamer before making its second Florida landfall on Marco Island. By that time, its sustained winds had dropped to 115 mph. While that may sound little different from the feared winds of 130 mph or more, a small decrease in wind speed means a larger decrease in the force the storm exerts.

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