Shared from the 9/9/2017 Financial Times (US) eEdition

Florida faces battle with familiar foe as Irma looms

Families seek shelter from hurricane poised to pummel US state this weekend


Safety first: a motel in Daytona Beach, Florida, is boarded up ahead of Irma’s arrival.


Below: Donald Trump is shown Irma’s probable path at the White House

David Goldman/AP

Naftali Landau was hoping to celebrate his 97th birthday on Thursday with his 89-year-old wife Rosalie at their home in North Miami Beach. But with Hurricane Irma expected to hit southern Florida this weekend, the holocaust survivor was grateful just to find a safe spot at a high school shelter.

“We could have stayed home but here we get a lot of assistance,” says Mr Landau, who moved to the US in 1949 after being tortured by the Nazis in Poland during the second world war. “We don’t have to worry about running out of water or electricity.”

The atmosphere at North Miami Beach Senior High is relaxed and orderly despite the circumstances. Red Cross and local volunteers accommodate the elderly, families with children and tourists seeking shelter from the strongest Atlantic storm on record.

Florida has a long history of devastating storms. In 1992, Andrew, another category 5 storm, killed 65 people, tore away more than 63,000 houses and caused damage estimated at $25.5bn, according to the National Hurricane Center. Since then the state has been hit by seven big storms. Irma could be the most devastating.

Since Andrew, Florida has put in place a number of measures and reforms. There is better co-operation between federal and local government agencies and stricter building regulations, which have helped mitigate damage.

Demetrica Rocker, who works at the school’s Claudette’s café and has volunteered at the shelter, is worried that Irma will wreck her house in Overtown, a low-income neighbourhood with a large African-American population.

“There has been a paradigm shift since Andrew,” says Richard Olson, director of the research centre at Florida International University in Miami. “From the federal to the local authorities and including private sector companies such as Walmart and Home Depot, everyone is working together well. Florida is ready for the storm in the best way it can.”

Lourdes de la Postilla, a softly spoken, elderly Cuban American, who has lived through scores of hurricanes, can vouch for that.

“In 2004, during another storm, I was brought here [North Miami Beach Senior High] and everything was more disorganised,” said Ms de la Postilla in Spanish. “Now things are so much better. They brought me here, gave me a nice spot, food. I have everything I need.”

For many of the almost 1,000 people at the North Miami Beach shelter, which can accommodate up to 3,000, the big concern is what they will find once Irma passes.

Miami’s population has grown 35 per cent to 2.7m since Andrew struck, and heavy development of the coastline means more people and buildings will be affected by flooding.

Credit Suisse estimates that Irma, with winds of up to 185mph, could cause damage estimated at $250bn in South Florida if the entire peninsula is hit. Tropical storm Harvey, which devastated southern Texas two weeks ago, caused damage estimated at $180bn.

The destruction will affect rich and poor. “One thing is clear, mother nature is democratic,” said Doris Baron, a French designer who lives in affluent Bay Harbor Islands and went to the shelter to help and seek refuge.

“I have no insurance so if the storm destroys my house I’m going to be on the road,” she said while serving a chicken burger.

Those with cover are worried about the high deductibles insurers impose on damage caused by natural calamity. For example, the owner of a $300,000 house has a 2 per cent deductible and will be liable for the first $6,000 of damage.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if my house gets damaged and I have to pay a lot of money up front to fix it,” said Norma Borelli, who was being comforted by her daughter, Bonnie. “I’m scared I’ll end up losing my house.”

President Donald Trump, whose so-called winter White House at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach has been boarded up, has vowed to help people affected by the storm. But government assistance can often take months or years to reach those most in need.

The immediate risks after the storm are huge. Rick Scott, Florida’s governor, pleaded for more volunteers to manage emergency operations. “We’ve had 6,800 volunteers sign up in the past 24 hours,” he said in a televised update. “That’s great, but we need more . . . We are going to need 17,000 volunteers statewide.”

At North Miami Beach Senior High, as more and more people made their way to the improvised front desk, Denise Woncisz, a Red Cross volunteer, had some good news for Mr Landau: “I’ve found you two cots.”

‘One thing is certain: mother nature is democratic. I have no insurance so if the storm destroys my house I’ll be on the road’

See this article in the e-Edition Here