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Property insurers continue to ponder the lessons of Hurricane Andrew five years after the United States suffered its costliest catastrophe.

The hurricane caused an estimated $16.5 billion in insured property damage in late August 1992 as it ripped across South Florida, barely missing Miami before it blew across the Gulf of Mexico and threatened New Orleans. In its wake, property insurers discovered many things.

For example, insurers found that commercial structures built to windstorm standards set by Factory Mutual Research Corp. and other recognized loss-prevention entities tended to fare well in the hurricane. But they also discovered that some structures supposedly built to Factory Mutual standards weren't and that it was far from easy to determine before a disaster whether corners had indeed been cut in construction. They also found that certain types of roofing performed better than others and were reminded that windows and other openings presented critical weak points in structures that needed to be shored up. And, of course, they learned yet again the importance of adequate loss control communications.

But the biggest lesson Hurricane Andrew taught insurers was that a storm of its power indeed can happen, said Dennis Anderson, vp and director of engineering for Protection

Mutual Insurance Co. of Park Ridge, Ill.

"Everybody's worst nightmare is a Category 4 or 5 hurricane goes into Miami and continues on to New Orleans, and that's almost what Andrew did," he said.

Hurricane Andrew taught insurers five lessons, said Stephen W. Lilienthal, executive vp and chief underwriting officer for United States Fidelity & Guaranty Corp. in Baltimore.

The catastrophe showed that insurers should clearly establish how much they are willing to lose on a single event; underscored the need for more sophisticated disaster modeling; showed a tremendous need for improving the quality of the data used in modeling; demonstrated that some insurers needed better disaster plans of their own in terms of getting enough claims adjusters and construction specialists into an affected area; and taught the entire industry not to let wishful thinking and growth pressures either dictate or be confused with strategy, he said. "Underwriting against nature is dicey at best," said Mr. Lilienthal.

There were surprises, pleasant and otherwise, as engineers and adjusters analyzed the impact of Andrew. In one of the less pleasant surprises, "we found that the building codes were not enforced uniformly," said Mark A. Tschiegg, vp-loss prevention field services for Industrial Risk Insurers in Hartford, Conn.

"The building codes that applied really didn't address the maximum sustainable winds that occurred. They also didn't address the flying debris and breaking windows, which subsequently over-pressurized buildings," he said.

As a result of Andrew, officials in South Florida tightened their building codes, said Peter J. Gore Willse, research consultant for IRI.

"I think there was an increased pressure to meet code requirements, and they upgraded the codes dramatically after the hurricane," said USF&G's Mr. Lilienthal. He emphasized, however, that the upgraded codes apply only to new construction, not existing buildings. Like other experts, he also noted that enforcement of building codes varied widely.

"We found that a lot of buildings that were built to Factory Mutual standards came through with flying colors," said Frank Suppe, vp-engineering for Arkwright Mutual Insurance Co. in Waltham, Mass.

But engineers found that some buildings thought to be built to Factory Mutual standards actually weren't, said Mr. Suppe. Instead, engineers found that the construction methods had been compromised. For example, metal deck had not been welded to steel structures the way they were supposed to be. Roofing materials had not been installed the right way.

"There was a tremendous amount of that that led to bigger industrial losses," said Mr. Suppe. "If you do it right, you can survive devastating natural weather events," he added.

In response, Arkwright "really looked at how can we better determine if buildings specified to FM standards had not been built that way," he said. Engineers tackled such questions as how to determine if flashing had been attached properly.

Another surprise was that one roof type didn't hold up as well as expected, said Protection Mutual's Mr. Anderson. Many industrial buildings use a lightweight concrete roof on top of a metal deck. In some cases, these roofs literally came apart, he said.

Also, "we reconfirmed that flashing ought to be attached firmly. Perimeters and corners ought to be firmly secured," he said.

It's easy to see that such measures are taken in new construction, but in older buildings, "a lot of things are concealed," he said. This includes such corner-cutting as using fasteners with one-inch heads rather than recommended three-inch heads, said Mr. Anderson.

"The weakest link is going to give," he said.

"The storm reminded us that you have to be extra cautious in assessing the risk. Our engineers since then have been much better prepared to identify construction weakness," said Arkwright's Mr. Suppe.

The hurricane also pinpointed another aspect of construction-windows-as a critical consideration in loss prevention.

"The biggest lesson was protection of openings of exterior walls in general," said Richard Davis, manager-construction section for Factory Mutual in Norwood, Mass.

"We all realized that we needed to do more to protect these openings on exterior walls from flying debris."

"When debris in the yard breaks the window, you end up having all the air going inside a closed building" and popping the roof off or knocking walls down, said IRI's Mr. Willse.

Factory Mutual Research's Mr. Davis said missile-resistant windows slowly are becoming more popular in hurricane-prone areas such as South Florida.

He pointed out that windows are tested for their resistance to two types of missiles. To test for large missiles, engineers shoot a two-by-four out of an air cannon and then test it to see how the material performed. The small missile test follows the same process except that steel balls strike the window to simulate roof gravel.

Large missiles are more likely to strike lower-story windows because the type of unsecured material that would do large-missile damage, such as tree limbs, furniture and equipment in industrial plant yards, isn't usually going to reach the upper stories. Conversely, the small missile material generally pounds higher points because of the pea gravel on roofs, he said.

The tests usually involve glass laminated with plastic film, said Mr. Davis, adding that windows and openings can also be protected by storm shutters and other materials. But shutters aren't always practical, he said. For example, a resort hotel with hundreds of rooms probably isn't going to have the manpower to secure all the shutters as a hurricane approaches, he said. Maintaining enough storage space for what could be literally thousands of shutters could also be a problem.

"Glass is still a bit of a wild card. We're trying to improve the quality of glazing systems, but that's got farther to go. That's an area where I think a lot more work will be done and we'll get a lot smarter," said Protection Mutual's Mr. Anderson.

Concrete and clay tiles have been troublesome in all hurricanes, said Factory Mutual's Mr. Davis. Making the matter worse is that the tiles often weren't installed correctly, he added.

"I've seen a lot of installations where they have two or three nail holes per tile and they used only one nail. The loss is terrible," he said.

The loss is not simply from the tiles tearing away and having to be replaced, either, Mr. Davis pointed out. Once airborne, the heavy tiles can smash windows and leave the contents of damaged structures vulnerable to wind-driven rain, he said.

In addition to the engineering lessons, insurers generally say Hurricane Andrew raised consciousness of the hurricane peril, a raised consciousness that in general remains.

"I can't say I've seen any evidence that they've become blase. We've had quite a strong hurricane season in the past few years, and people need to be prepared for this," said IRI's Mr. Tschiegg. "I think there's a heightened awareness just because of the superior weather monitoring there is," such as cable television's Weather Channel and CNN, as well as Internet sources.

"I think the awareness level is certainly better," agreed Protection Mutual's Mr. Anderson. "All of us have done a lot more to notify our customers."

"I think there has been more of an appetite for hurricane planning," he added, citing such examples as a greater willingness to heed warnings about roof flashing and other property loss control recommendations.

Once a storm has passed through, IRI works with customers "to see how effective their emergency planning was and what changes they should make," said Mr. Tschiegg.

In part as a result of Hurricane Andrew, Arkwright launched its "Nat Cat" electronic early warning system for customers. The program, which began in the spring of 1995, involves having Arkwright engineers track a severe-weather event, define by ZIP code the locations likely to be hit, run the ZIP codes against a customer list and automatically fax an alert to any customers in the ZIP codes where the storm might hit. The alert contains storm information and a loss control checklist.

"We know if customers were able to take action, and they had advice at the last minute, they would have significantly less damage," said Mr. Suppe.

Arkwright took the warning system a step further last week to mark Andrew's fifth anniversary, noted Mr. Suppe.

The insurer announced last Thursday that it will spend more than $1.2 million to equip at least 10,000 customer facilities with special radios that will give them advance warning of hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters. The radios will allow customers to tap into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio Network, which broadcasts up-to-the-minute local reports 24 hours a day.

Mr. Davis of Factory Mutual said branch offices "will contact plant people 24 to 48 hours before it's expected to hit and remind contacts of certain precautions to take to limit damage. This will include things like taking any kind of storage or equipment that's in the yard that could become a missile and taking it indoors or securing it within practical reason."

"We recommend that they have an emergency plan in effect prior to hurricane season," he said. This includes having pieces of plywood on hand cut to size, and a method of securing them arranged so they can install it quickly. The holes for fastening the plywood to the openings should be pre-drilled long before the storm. Bolts for securing the materials should be readily available. The materials also should be inspected once a year to make sure they are readily available and intact.

"Twenty-four hours before the storm, everybody is scrambling around looking for plywood. They run out of materials. They run out of time," he said.

"Most customers asked: 'What did we learn? What can we do to make sure I don't see the type of damage that was done in Andrew?'" said Arkwright's Mr. Suppe.

But, said Mr. Suppe, there is still a concern that five years after the fact, people aren't paying enough attention, feeling the likelihood of a recurrence is minimal.

Complacency remains an issue, warned USF&G's Mr. Lilienthal.

"Memories are fading as we speak," he said