IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hurricane Irma Will Test South Florida's Breakneck Development

South Florida has added millions more people and many more buildings since its last category 5 hurricane. Has it done enough to protect them?
Image: Florida Prepares for Irma
A nearly-deserted beach after residents and visitors evacuated from Miami Beach, Florida, Sept. 7, 2017, ahead of Hurricane Irma.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

Hurricane Irma is about to show whether South Florida, one of the fastest-growing parts of the United States, has done enough to protect that development.

The last monster hurricane to hit the area, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, did an estimated $25 billion in damage. Twenty-six deaths were directly attributed to the storm in Florida, the Bahamas and Louisiana, 15 of which were in the Sunshine State alone. Indirect deaths brought the overall total to 65, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Reinsurer Swiss Re said the hurricane destroyed more than 25,000 homes and damaged another 100,000.

Hurricane Andrew taught South Florida to improve its resiliency to storms. It tightened building codes so that newly built structures could withstand hurricane-force winds and developed a world-class system to help people prepare and respond to disasters.

But Hurricane Irma is much bigger than Andrew. There are about 1.3 million more people in the region. The rate of development has continued unabated, putting many more buildings at risk.

And sea levels are rising.

Related: For Homestead, Florida, City That Was Wrecked By Hurricane Andrew, Irma Is Scary Nostalgia

The South Florida coast, symbolized by Miami Beach's glitzy, high rise-studded waterfront, frequently suffers sunny-day floods, making it ground zero in a struggle to protect coastal cities from storms that could be increasingly destructive due to global warming and rising sea levels.

"The wind, we got that. But the water has so much more force," said Keren Bolter, a professor of environmental sciences at Broward College. "Storm surges and flooding are what will cause a lot of damage in the future."

Related: Florida Races to Prepare Ahead of Hurricane Irma’s Fury

To mark the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew last month, insurance firm Swiss Re analyzed what kind of damage the storm would have done today. It projected that the cost would be more than $50 billion in insured losses alone. If the region's system of man-made drainage structures failed, the losses would double or triple, the firm said.

Making matters more complicated is that many who have moved to South Florida have no experience dealing with a big hurricane. An estimated 500,000 people arrived from 2011 to 2016, including a large portion of people from other countries, according to a 2016 analysis by the Miami Herald.

The last major hurricane to hit South Florida was Wilma, a category 3 storm in 2005.

That means Irma is the first big storm for many new residents.

"It's hard for people who haven’t experienced this before," said Tisha Holmes, an assistant professor at Florida State University's Department of Urban and Regional Planning. "There's some inertia because they don’t understand the gravity of the situation."

Isabel Cosio Carballo, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, pointed out that many people in South Florida ─ newly arrived or not ─ can't afford to properly protect themselves from Irma.

She cited a recent report by the United Way of Florida that found 61 percent of households in Miami-Dade County, and 44 percent in Broward County, were either poor or working poor, meaning they struggled to pay basic bills ─ let alone survive for a disaster.

That's a level of vulnerability that often gets overlooked, Cosio Carballo said.

"Some people don’t have cars, or jobs that give them time off, or ready cash to go somewhere," she said. "It's important that we aren’t judgmental about people waiting to prepare. It's not easy for a lot of them."

A woman uses her cellphone alongside a boarded-up hotel following mandatory evacuation orders in Miami Beach, Florida, Sept. 7, 2017, ahead of Hurricane Irma.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images