Friday, August 24, 2012

awaiting Isaac, remembering Andrew

Ron Magill, flamingoes at the Miami Metro Zoo.
The practice of naming cyclones is unsettling. Anthropomorphizing storms gives them agency and makes them seem malevolent; a tornado or earthquake is a random act of nature, "Katrina" was a malicious killer.

All over South Florida today people are marking the twentieth anniversary of the day Hurricane Andrew hit, and the consensus is that the destruction caused by the storm - and the region's lack of preparedness - "changed everything." The approach of Tropical Storm Isaac, which may make landfall as a hurricane in three days, makes the anniversary more urgent than nostalgic.

The scale of destruction in 1992 - 25,000 homes destroyed in Miami-Dade County alone, another 100,000 damaged, along with power outages that lasted weeks in some areas - led to major reforms in the ways we design buildings, transportation systems and utilities to survive storms. We didn't live in Miami back then, so our knowledge of the changes to building practices is all second hand. But it seems like much of what provides a minimum of assurance that our buildings don't collapse and our power comes back quickly came in the aftermath of Andrew. Changes to the building code in Miami-Dade county are particularly important, since they provide clear standards that even our notoriously bad building contractors can follow. The code changes also led to the development of materials and assemblies, like our impact-resistant doors and windows, that dramatically improve the durability of structures.

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