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Published: August 29, 2007

 
 

When There Is No Cavalry

No single authority can prepare for or respond to major disasters as effectively as a megacommunity can.

Illustration by Marco Ventura

­When Hurricane Andrew slammed into the Florida coast in August 1992, its 165 mph winds carved a swath of destruction across southern Dade County, littering the landscape with splintered trees, overturned cars, and debris from flattened businesses and homes. This Category 5 hurricane quick­ly overwhelmed local relief efforts. As with most severe natural disasters, it prompted pleas from community leaders for federal assistance. But there were limits to what the federal authorities could do. After three days, Dade County Emergency Management Director Kate Hale lashed out on national television. “Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?” she demanded. “They keep saying we’re going to get supplies. For God’s sake, where are they?

If there was a cavalry to call, like the horseback rescue squad in the archetypal Western movie, then it either never arrived or arrived too late to do much good. Ultimately, Andrew destroyed 126,000 homes, left 250,000 people homeless, wiped out 80 percent of the area’s farms, and was responsible for at least 40 deaths. The hurricane also caused more than US$26 billion in damage, including $16 billion in insured losses — too much for insurance companies to cover. According to one report, 11 insurance companies went bankrupt trying to cover more than 600,000 claims.

“Florida learned a hard lesson about response and recovery after Andrew,” said Jeb Bush, who was the state’s governor from 1999 to 2007, in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security on October 19, 2005. “That catastrophic storm was a wake-up call for all Floridians.”

Specifically, it was now clear to Florida’s leaders that no government agency could manage this type of large-scale catastrophe on its own. Each of the various local, state, and federal agencies tasked with emergency management had only part of the resources or knowledge needed to address a wide-ranging disaster — a disaster that might affect businesses, transportation nodes, util­ity infrastructures, water and food supplies, law enforcement, hospitals and medical services, communications networks, and other crucial services. So Florida moved to a new approach, deliberately involving a variety of organizations — public sector, corporations, nongovernmental (NGOs), and faith-based — in its emergency planning and activities.

This meant changing both the planning process and the relationships among these various groups. State officials took a hard look at construction practices and regulations, enforcing current codes and drafting new legislation and regulations to ensure that buildings could withstand strong winds. (A report by the Institute for Business and Home Safety said the new codes, had they been in place in 1992, would have reduced Andrew’s damage by $10 billion, or more than one-third of the total.) To address the insurance problems exposed by Hurricane Andrew, Florida created the Florida Residential Property and Casualty Joint Underwriting Association and the Florida Windstorm Underwriting Association — insurance pools for homeowners who live in hurricane-prone areas. (In 2002, these associations were combined into the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.) The state also created the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to provide reinsurance to help the insurance industry cover its policies following any particularly costly disaster. Finally, the state helped sponsor the Volunteer Florida Foundation, a community-based program that serves as a focal point for private, charitable, and individual donations and volunteer activities related to disaster recovery.

The success of this approach soon became obvious. During the severe 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, a series of high-powered hurricanes and tropical storms (Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, and Tropical Storms Bonnie, Ophelia, and Tammy) struck Florida. The state’s government, business, and civil organizations quickly mobilized, working together — as they had planned and trained to do — to provide aid for relief and recovery. At the same time, the strengthened building codes limited the damage to businesses and homes. Following the 2004 hurricane season, insurance companies re­ceived more than $3.6 billion from the catastrophe fund, cushioning the impact of claims they paid for storm damages. (In subsequent years, responding in part to Florida’s increasing property insurance rates, the state further expanded the fund’s role.) Florida still requested federal assistance during these crises, reinforcing the federal government’s critical role in assisting during response and recovery. But the federal government was just one of many members of an integrated “megacommunity,” one in which each player had its own particular role and purpose. Consequently, when hurricanes threaten Florida today, its residents no longer expect or require the federal “cavalry” to gallop in and save the day.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Bill Adair, “10 Years Ago, Her Angry Plea Got Hurricane Aid Moving,” St. Petersburg Times, August 20, 2002: Source of the “cavalry” quote.
  2. Bob Brewin, “Northcom’s New C2: Collaboration and Communications,” Federal Computer Week, December 12, 2006; and “Northcom Beefs Up Emergency Response: New Organization Structure Brings NGOs and Private Sector into Command Center,” Federal Computer Week, December 18, 2006: Source on U.S. Northern Command (NorthCom).
  3. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: How to bring together multiple organizations to develop solutions to complex problems. Click here.
  4. Ellen M. Gordon, “Multi-State Initiatives — Agriculture Security Preparedness,” master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2004: Study of a Midwestern multistate, multisector, megacommunity-style partnership for response to agricultural threats. Click here.
  5. Adrian Sainz, “Ten Years After Hurricane Andrew, Effects Are Still Felt,” Sun-Sentinel, August 18, 2002: Describes the devastation of the 1992 Florida storm.
  6. Judy Stark, “New Building Code Brings Cost, Confusion,” St. Petersburg Times, August 19, 2002: Describes the post–Hurricane Andrew building codes and regulations in Florida.
  7. Anisya Thomas and Lynn Fritz, “Disaster Relief, Inc.,” Harvard Business Review, November 2006: Stories of corporate responses to catastrophes, including Coca-Cola’s use of bottling networks to provide drinking water after the 2004 South Asian tsunami.
  8. Kathleen Tierney, “The Red Pill,” ssrc.org, June 2006: Acerbic view of U.S. emergency preparedness from the director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder; this article makes points that reinforce a mega­community perspective. Click here.
  9. For more articles on global perspective, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.