A History of Recent U.S. Disasters

 

The plagues that befell Egypt in the Book of Exodus included swarms of frogs and locusts, as well as a more conventional hailstorm. In modern times, the natural disasters Americans fear most are hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.

Here is a look back at three of the worst calamities of the 1990s - Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992, the Northridge earthquake in California in 1994, and the Red River floods in North Dakota in 1997 - and the lessons emergency planners learned from each.

HURRICANE ANDREW

The costliest act of nature - pre-Katrina - was Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, which cut a 20-mile-wide swath of destruction across south Florida in August 1992, killing 15 and leaving 180,000 homeless. It leveled the city of Homestead and parts of Miami and inflicted damage exceeding $25 billion.

The hurricane struck 10 weeks before the presidential election of 1992, and President George H.W. Bush and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were heavily criticized by state and local officials for a slow response to the disaster.

Miami-Dade County emergency management director Kate Hale famously exclaimed before the television cameras, "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?"

Local officials quickly got Miami back on its feet. City Manager Cesar Odio upped the police presence to deter looting, instituted a 6 p.m. curfew and expedited debris removal to open the streets to emergency responders and utility workers.

"We did not wait for FEMA," he said. "A city should not wait to serve its citizens."

Andrew turned thousands of homes into splinters and triggered an outcry about shoddy construction. That caused Florida to adopt what is regarded as the toughest statewide building code in the country, including a requirement for hurricane-resistant glass or shutters in coastal communities.

The code added to the cost of building new homes, but also is credited with reducing the damage from Florida's recent spate of hurricanes.

Many big insurance companies refused to offer wind insurance after Andrew, so the state now imposes a fee on all homeowners' policies that goes into a wind destruction fund. Surprisingly, property assessments in south Florida reached pre-Andrew levels only two years after the storm.

Odio said he wishes New Orleans had taken a page from Miami's book on hurricane preparedness. The homeless living in Miami's Bicentennial Park balked at warnings to vacate the waterfront so Odio turned to the city attorney, who authorized their forced transfer to shelters.

"I'm proud of what we did during Andrew," he said.

THE NORTHRIDGE EARTHQUAKE

Earthquakes are a fact of life in California, and southern California, with its precarious perch along volatile fault lines, was ripe in 1994 for a major temblor. A tectonic plate shift early on the morning of Jan. 14, 1994, known as the Northridge earthquake, killed 61, injured 18,480 and damaged 55,000 structures in greater Los Angeles.

The 4:30 a.m. quake, measured at 6.7 on the Richter scale, destroyed overpasses on Interstate 10 and other major freeways and toppled a 2,500-car parking structure at California State University, Northridge.

It was the worst earthquake to strike a U.S. urban area since the Long Beach, Calif., earthquake of 1933, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. However, with most residents at home in their beds when it struck, the death toll was considered remarkably low.

Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and Dick Andrews, director of the state's Office of Emergency Services, deployed full-scale rescue and recovery teams within hours to the stricken areas.

In addition to damage visible to the naked eye, building inspectors were surprised to find the earthquake bent steel frames and foundations that had been thought to be earthquake-resistant.

Wilson was told it could take up to two years to get the traffic flowing again on I-10, one of the busiest freeways in the world. State and federal highway authorities offered contractors bonuses of $200,000 a day for finishing work ahead of schedule, and penalties of $200,000 a day if they were late. Crews worked around the clock and I-10 reopened in 66 days.

Besides the contractor incentive program, which has been adopted in Katrina-hit Gulf states, Northridge also resulted in changes to fire and seismic codes to limit water damage from sprinklers, Andrews said.

High costs led the legislature to delay until 2030 the deadline for making all hospitals earthquake-proof. That work will cost nearly $42 billion, according to a RAND Corp. study.

THE RED RIVER FLOOD

The 50,000 residents of rustic Grand Forks, N.D., knew the floodwaters were coming weeks before the Red River swamped the city in April 1997. They piled sandbags atop levees to a height of 52 feet, three feet above the crest predicted by the National Weather Service. But the flood of the century rolled in at 54 feet.

The Red River, which forms the North Dakota-Minnesota state line as it flows north into Canada's Lake Winnipeg, breached the levees, barreled past the strategically placed sandbags and filled buildings up to their second stories. A spectacular fire destroyed a stretch of downtown buildings.

The winter's prodigious snowfall coupled with drenching spring rains was the perfect recipe for a major flood, said Mike Jacobs, publisher and editor of the Grand Forks Herald.

The Herald's staff went about its business until water lapped at the door, then closed shop and retreated to higher ground. Printing on borrowed presses, the paper never missed a day and was the first business to reopen downtown. It won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the disaster.

FEMA, still smarting over criticism of its performance in Hurricane Andrew, was determined not to falter in North Dakota. Then-FEMA director James Lee Witt summoned Jacobs as waters approached. "He said, 'Here's how this is going to play out. Here's what the stages of disaster and recovery are. Here's the grieving process the community will go through,'" Jacobs recalled.

The National Guard evacuated residents to a military base 14 miles west of the river. There were no casualties in the city, but the flood inflicted more than $1 billion in damages.

Eighty percent of the buildings in Grand Forks and every building in East Grand Forks, its Minnesota sister city, were damaged, Jacobs said.

But Grand Forks recovered with a huge influx of private and government funds after the flooding. A sports arena brought traffic to the city. However, downtown businesses are still saddled with huge debt and low occupancy rates, Jacobs said. The completion of a new system of levees and floodwalls has been pushed back to 2010 because of engineering and funding issues.

The National Weather Service revised its flood prediction models, largely because of what happened in Grand Forks. "They used to say very specific things like, 'The crest will reach 49 feet at this time.' Now they give a wider range," Jacobs said.

 
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