HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Twenty years ago this week, Hurricane Andrew landed near here in a rising rage before dawn, its winds spinning into a tightening cone that peeled houses off this fingertip of south Florida by the thousands.
The storm's damage transformed global hurricane assumptions and much of the local landscape. Survivors recount feelings of being lost in neighborhoods where trees, homes and cars were violently rearranged. Heaps of strange detritus from elsewhere, even a covey of rabbit corpses, replaced familiar features.
Its arrival drew a new map, too, for the stunned insurance industry, which had become accustomed to building up financial reserves during a long period of calm seas. It failed to grasp the havoc that a howling mass of wind and moisture from a disturbance near Africa would wreak on this fast-growing tropical "frontier" of the United States.
Andrew changed all that. The storm brought a new era of risk modeling and insurance prices that are permanently higher. These are worldwide alterations. It also revealed a culture of building code violations in Florida and failed enforcement policies that helped it grow. Officials say that's fixed. The state now has the strongest building standards nationwide.
In a grimmer achievement, Andrew made many people here feel as if they were about to die, a memory that officials say will motivate widespread evacuation before future storms. Overall planning, from having some generator-powered traffic lights to increased trauma training, has improved, experts say.
But for all that, Andrew's terrifying effects have failed to provide the most potent cure to this area's susceptibility to hurricanes. It didn't inspire people to move out of harm's way.
"It's as if [Andrew] never happened or no one cared," Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, told a group of academics and local officials in Miami recently. "Andrew has had basically zero effect in terms of diminishing demand for at-risk property."
Today, Homestead and a row of adjoining towns that drift south from Miami are roughly twice as developed as they were 20 years ago. This 20-mile stretch of back-to-back communities, laced together with strip malls and walled-in neighborhoods, sustained Andrew's fatal blow.
More than 25,000 homes were destroyed, and 100,000 were damaged. Of the homes in Homestead, the largest of these towns, which are sandwiched between the Atlantic's mangrove coastline and the huge Everglades swamp to the west, only about 10 percent survived.
But that didn't pinch the flow of people pouring into Florida, which has quadrupled in population, to 19 million, since 1960. Homestead is growing at a faster rate. Its population has more than doubled since Andrew crashed ashore. When stricken by the storm, one of the worst to ever hit the United States, about 27,000 people lived here. Now it's 62,000.
Homes are being built at a pace to match the population boom. Homestead alone has seen its housing stock bulge by 117 percent since 1992, and local officials hope to see it get bigger.
Steven Bateman, Homestead's mayor, envisions luring some of the 89 million tourists who pass near here each year on their way to the Florida Keys with new hotels, box stores and restaurants. Before the recession, this was one of the fastest-growing cities of its size in the nation, he said. Since 2009, three new schools have been built in a city that three years ago had just one.
"I just think the effects of Andrew no longer exist in Homestead," Bateman said, sipping a Cuban coffee. "It's over. I don't know how to put it more simple. It's over."
Bateman believes the city can sustain another doubling in size, to 120,000 people. That concerns some observers, who say Andrew exposed the risk of concentrating so much wealth in the nation's most hurricane-prone state. Altogether, an additional 9 million people are expected to settle in Florida by 2030, according to the Census Bureau.
As buildings rise to meet the climbing demand for housing, Florida's exposure to financial loss from hurricanes will increase. Its exposure is already No. 1 in the nation, at more than $2.5 trillion.
Richard Olson, a political science professor at Florida International University, where he studies extreme events, summed up the state's rising risk this way: "We're gonna get our asses kicked."
"Yes, we're better off on building standards," he said. "But when we look at exposure and economic vulnerabilities, it's disturbing."
Historical signpost ignored?
When Hurricane Andrew roared onto shore at roughly 5 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1992, it was the most expensive catastrophe ever unleashed, anywhere in the world. Today, it stands as a historical signpost in the grim map-keeping of disasters, being one of just three Category 5 hurricanes -- the most powerful -- to ever make landfall in the United States. It caused about $25 billion in damage, in today's dollars.
Unlike Hurricane Katrina, a sprawling, weaker system prone to cause flooding, Andrew is known for its nightmare winds, which shrieked mercilessly at sustained speeds of 165 miles an hour. It shredded houses, made boats fly and drove wood boards through the trunks of palm trees, like missiles.
Juanita Mosley, who was recently cutting hair in a local barbershop, remembers leaning desperately against her bathroom door on that morning 20 years ago. It was clapping open and shut "as hard as it could" because the second floor of her house had been ripped off.
"I thought I was gonna die," said Mosley, whose own barbershop, famous for having a beer keg, was also destroyed. She slept in a recliner in the garage for days after the storm, cradling a gun to deter looters.
The fields nearby that had once produced potatoes now grow neighborhoods. These communities stretch for miles, each with its own name, often visible on a sign at the entrance.
Private insurance companies helped spring for a massive rebuilding effort after Andrew, taking a financial hit that would plague the industry for years afterward. The storm exposed deficiencies in their policy prices and a gross underestimation of the hurricane risk in south Florida, experts say. Seven insurers went bankrupt, and others raised rates and curtailed coastal coverage.
Preparing for more -- both storms and people
Meanwhile, global reinsurers, which sometimes underwrite insurers with high-risk policies, like those in Florida, began recalculating the damage that hurricanes could cause. They added to their reserves and hiked their rates. Since Andrew, their prices remain permanently elevated, Hartwig said.
"Hurricane Andrew set off a global chain of events in the insurance industry that fundamentally transformed how this industry operates," he said.
Higher rates and dwindling coverage caused one of the first large migrations to a public insurance program. Florida's Citizens Property Insurance Corp., a state-run program, has since become the largest insurer in Florida, with 1.4 million policies covering $511 billion in property. The program exploded in size after the devastating storm seasons of 2004 and 2005.
The outcome has saddled the state with enormous financial risk if a major hurricane strikes a populated area. It's difficult to shed that exposure because private insurers have curtailed their coverage, in part to avoid major losses from storms. Also, private insurers say they can't compete with Citizens' politically suppressed rates.
Environmentalists and some others say the low rates are one reason for the rapid expansion of development in south Florida, even as the number of catastrophes worldwide is growing.
But some residents who live near the boulevards lined with palm trees here wonder if anything -- whether it be storms or expenses -- will disrupt the steady flow of people into this region 30 minutes south of Miami.
"They're coming," said Rafael Casals, the interim town manager of Cutler Bay, which saw the eye of Andrew. "They'll continue to come."