By Andy Sullivan
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (Reuters) - This sprawling suburb on Florida's southern tip was nearly wiped flat by one hurricane 25 years ago. Now its residents hope they have rebuilt strong enough to withstand another.
With Hurricane Irma churning toward Florida on Friday, many people in Homestead prepared to hunker down in houses that are substantially more fortified than those that were swept aside when Hurricane Andrew came ashore in 1992.
Barreling ashore with winds of up to 165 miles (265 km) per hour, Andrew ripped roofs off houses and stripped palm trees bare. The Category 5 hurricane was responsible for 61 deaths and $26.5 billion in property damage, making it one of the most expensive storms in U.S. history.
But a tough new building code approved after the storm required structures to be built to withstand wind speeds of at least 111 miles per hour. So-called hurricane impact windows, which are now common, must be made with shatterproof glass and cheap materials like particle board can no longer be used on roofs.
Even construction cranes, a common sight in downtown Miami, must be able to withstand winds of up to 145 miles per hour.
No one knows where Irma, a Category 4 storm with top sustained winds of 155 miles an hour late on Friday, will strike the hardest when it makes its projected landfall in south Florida on Sunday.
But fortified roofs and other measures to secure buildings have persuaded people like Joy McRae of Homestead, which includes a major agricultural area, to stay put rather than join the hordes trying to escape for safer ground north on the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 95.
"I convinced myself that it's not going to be so bad," said McRae, 56, as she listed the features of her concrete house, built in 2007, including both shatterproof windows and aluminum hurricane shutters.
Though McRae was worried about possible flooding - many new neighborhoods in Homestead are built in low-lying areas - she said she did not expect a repeat of 1992, when Andrew tore the roof off her house and flattened entire neighborhoods nearby.
"We've got everything battened down, we're just getting some food and we're ready to ride it out," she said.
If south Florida is sturdier now than it was 25 years ago, it also presents a bigger target, however. The population has grown by more than one-third since Andrew, to 2.7 million, as high-rise condos have sprouted in downtown Miami and potato fields have been transformed into subdivisions in outlying areas like Homestead.
Homestead's population has more than doubled since 1992 to 67,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and all that growth could lead to more devastation.
Insurer Swiss Re, in one estimate, said Irma would cause between $50 billion and $60 billion in damages if it were to take an identical path to Andrew.
That concerns some longtime residents, who say they are worried less by the prospect of property damage than by how their neighbors might behave in the chaos.
Schoolteacher Michael Littman, 51, recalls hearing gunshots at night after Andrew blew through his neighborhood. Police struggled restore order for several days, he said, adding that he plans to keep his cellphone, wallet and Smith & Wesson pistol close by this time around.
"I've seen anarchy before," Littman said. "It's shocking to see what happens when you strip away the thin veneer of civilization."
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Tom Brown)