InTransition Magazine
Article URL:
InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

Archived editions: 

Winds of Change

Since Devastating Hurricane Seasons of 2004 and 2005,
Florida Has Made Its Transportation System Stronger and Smarter

By Jessica Zimmer

In 2004, Florida suffered direct blows from Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan along with a battery of severe tropical storms. At some $50 billion in damage, it was the costliest Atlantic hurricane season in U.S. history—a distinction that lasted for only a matter of months.

Sand-clogged road

Marvin Nauman/FEMA

Workers begin digging out a sand-clogged coastal road in Navarre Beach,

Fla., following Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 31, 2005.

The 2005 season saw a record 27 named storms which collectively caused $150 billion in damage and claimed over 3,000 lives. Florida was once again pounded by several violent storms, including Hurricanes Isaac, Wilma and a still-strengthening Katrina.

This unprecedented number of catastrophic storms severely damaged the Sunshine State’s transportation infrastructure and repeatedly paralyzed travel. Now, almost a decade later, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and other entities, including counties and utility companies, have made significant changes in their operational approaches and investment strategies that are designed to minimize chaos in future storms. The new technology, equipment, and cooperative techniques employed in Florida could hold lessons for other regions such as the Northeast, as it works to become more resilient.

Transportation planners and emergency operations workers are quick to point out that you can only design so much before Mother Nature wins. The completed work, however, is likely to greatly reduce financial and physical damage, as well as lead to more organized evacuations and repair.

In 2004, FDOT District 4, which reaches from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, was heavily impacted by high velocity winds and storm surges. Chuck McGinness, a public information officer for the District, recalls the nightmarish bumper-to-bumper traffic as people tried to escape the region.

“I had a friend who tried to get out of the state [from Broward County]. This usually takes four to five hours. It took her 24 hours to get out of the state,” McGinness said.

Between 2004 and 2005, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, roughly half of the area’s traffic signals were destroyed. The situation was scarcely better just south in Miami-Dade county.

Brian Rick, FDOT public information officer for District 6, which reaches from Miami to Key West, recalls the packed streets after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Rick remembers seeing exhausted drivers facing throngs of vehicles at intersections. No one remembered the standard rule of thumb: treat a non-functioning traffic signal as a four-way stop.

“Basically, it was like a 100 percent failure of traffic signals. It reminded me of the movie ‘Panic in the Year Zero!’” Rick said. “[In the movie], there’s one moment where [the main characters] had to cross the highway. Nobody was letting them through. It was impossible because everyone was panicking.” 

The causes for the jams were many—downed signals, power outages and vegetation blocking roads. Drivers had no understanding of how to proceed under the circumstances. A crush of residents wanted to flee the area. The counties and FDOT districts tackled all of these problems through mitigation. 

Smart grid office

Florida Power and Light technicians monitor the company's

smart grid for disruptions.

Bill Wang, assistant district maintenance engineer for FDOT District 4, said during Hurricane Wilma, the District’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) lost power. Although the EOC had a small back-up generator, power wasn’t stable. Eventually the EOC’s computer system died. District 4’s EOC now has a brand-new backup generator system, as well as a remote connection to its control panel for 13 major corridors in the district. If necessary, a small generator can be plugged in and signals can be powered at specific intersections within the corridors.

Greg Brostowicz, a spokesperson for the utility company Florida Power and Light (FPL), which serves much of South Florida, said new technology has been critical to aid in problem-spotting and repair. 

“In 2004, 2005, when street signs were down, there was no way to know where you were. Today we have mobile technology in all our trucks. We have a GPS system and smart-grid technology that allows us to get a view of our power system and see what’s functioning,” Brostowicz said.

Wind-Resistant Traffic Lights 

New equipment has also helped to prevent traffic confusion. Throughout the state, and especially in Southeast Florida, counties and FDOT districts have replaced span-wire traffic signals with mast arms. A span-wire traffic signal is composed of a signal hanging on a cable between wood or concrete poles. A mast arm is a steel pole with extension arms containing traffic signals that overhang the roadway. It is anchored in the ground by a large concrete foundation. 

Although mast arms are expensive and bulky, they can sustain 150 mph winds. FDOT District 4 continued an initiative begun following Hurricane Andrew to install mast arms at major intersections within 10 miles of the beach. Rick said an intersection with multiple mast arms “looks like a fortress.”

pivotal hanger traffic light

A wind-resistant pivotal hanger traffic light.

“It’s not exactly a pretty sight. It’s industrial, and not something you’d want at every site,” Rick said. 

Broward County, as other counties, replaced and retrofitted its span-wire signals with pivotal hangers. Pivotal hanger signals are also suspended from a line, but the hanger allows the signal to rotate under high winds, and the black box which encases the lights and wires is reinforced. A signal on a pivotal hanger is flexible and can withstand up to 110 mph winds. McGinness said pivotal hangers were put in over 200 intersections in West Palm Beach, all along evacuation routes. 

Brostowicz said FPL joined in the effort to strengthen traffic signals. “In a lot of locations, we replaced wood poles with either concrete poles or stronger wood poles. We also worked to cut down the space between poles, which makes [the wire more secure] and the structure stronger,” he said. 

Since 2006, FPL inspected a million poles—virtually all the poles it has in the state. It also cleared more than 1,000 miles of power lines from vegetation. It is harder for FDOT and counties to clear vegetation preemptively. Wang said removing trees prior to any actual damage tends to be controversial.

Building Bridges, North and South

One of the major problems in the Florida panhandle in 2004 was Hurricane Ivan’s destruction of the 2.5-mile Escambia Bay Bridge, located on a stretch of I-10 in Pensacola. Ian Satter, public information officer for FDOT District 3, which extends from Tallahassee to Pensacola, recalls how “the surge just lifted up pieces of the bridge and washed them away.” 

After the storm, FDOT employed contract workers round the clock to rebuild the bridge as quickly as possible. They finished in 17 days. Satter said the experience FDOT gained has helped it organize 24-7 operations for bridge repair. 

“Bridges are major thoroughfares because they carry goods and services in North Florida,” Satter said. “We can’t afford to have them out.” 

Satter said FDOT is also changing the type of asphalt in bridges and the types of foundations for roadways so that they will last longer. 

Oscar Gonzales, public information specialist for the FDOT’s 826 to 836 Interchange Reconstruction project, said the hurricanes have also taught FDOT to construct inland bridges to higher standards.

The 826 to 836 project involves the redesign of the interchange between State Road 826 (the Palmetto Expressway) and State Road 836 (the Dolphin Expressway) just outside of Miami. It is one of the most heavily trafficked interchanges in the country, handling some 433,000 vehicles each day. The project involves the widening and reconstruction of the highways, improvements to feeder routes, the implementation of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technologies, and the construction of 46 new bridges. 

Gonzales said since 2005, the building standards for bridges have been strengthened. “Everything is designed for a [higher] wind loading and bracing,” he said.

One of the new types of bridges in the interchange that meets the higher standards is a segmental bridge. There will be 4 segmental bridges in the interchange, each designed differently.

“A segmental bridge is [designed] in pieces, like Legos. The [crews] fit the sections together and taper them end to end,” said Gonzales. 

Gonzales said another part of crisis prevention is the requirement for construction crews to be ready for a hurricane at every different phase of work. 

“Everything has to be braced. If there’s a watch issued, we start to tape up the work site. During the hurricane season, we have to be ready [to stop] at any time,” said Gonzales. 

Opening the Lines of Communication 

Despite the importance of all other efforts, Florida transportation professionals agree that the biggest lesson from the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes has been to ensure effective communication. FDOT, which is broken up into seven different districts, has improved how the districts work together to prepare for storms. 

“If we’re having a crisis in District 3, we’ll get assistance from District 2 or District 5. The teams will be in place before the storm even reaches,” said Satter. 

“We’d rather have the resources there to move quickly than take a ‘wait and see’ approach,” he added. 
In a state where so many residents are recent transplants, community education is critical for effective traffic management. Curt Sommerhoff, director of emergency management for Miami-Dade County, said his staff makes presentations at new developments to educate residents about the value of sheltering in place.

“So many people retire and move to Florida and don’t have experience with these kinds of storms,” Sommerhoff said. 

Collapsed road

Dave Saville/FEMA

This coastal road in Garcon Point, Fla., was one of many

damaged by the wind and waves of Hurricane Ivan

in September of 2004.

“Our staff has to assure the residents that yes, these storms do happen, and that kind of danger does exist,” he said.

The county’s emergency management team is also involved in a continual effort to work with the hotel and motel industry, taxicab and car rental agencies, and the airport and seaport to make sure that visitors and residents are not left stranded.  

“We work with cruise lines to get people off the boats and find information about where they can stay. Our office of consumer services communicates shelter openings to taxicab services. We ask that hotels with relationships with sister hotels inland drop off visitors to more secure locations. How you treat people has an influence on whether they come back,” Sommerhoff said. 

Miami-Dade County has improved how it works with law enforcement agencies to ensure motorist safety in instances of heavy traffic. One technique has been to open up the shoulder of the road to act as an extra lane.
“When you have 60,000 to 70,000 people leaving a NASCAR event or the Keys, it becomes one of those non-emergency traffic nightmares that allow for practice,” Sommerhoff said. 

FPL has been able to implement new measures to identify key intersections through its Storm Secure Project, a cooperative effort between utility company staff, emergency operations centers and community leaders. 

“[With the help of others], we were able to invest in the infrastructure to harden critical facilities like police stations and fire stations,” said Brostowicz. “Then we started looking at critical community [locations] and main thoroughfares, working with the local officials to identify them and strengthen the poles in those areas.”

Although Florida is accustomed to experiencing storms on a seasonal basis, its residents’ familiarity with storm safety measures and drills such as the state’s annual mock hurricane only go so far. 

“Unfortunately for Florida, repetition makes our response get better,” Satter said. 

Jessica Zimmer is a freelance journalist and a former Florida resident.

Return to this Issue