Life After Charley

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2004

About a week after Hurricane Charley churned through Charlotte County, Dave and Nancy Tomec sat on the bleachers inside the Harold Avenue Recreation Center in Port Charlotte, paralyzed by the enormity of their loss. A self-employed concrete pumper whose equipment brings concrete to building sites where trucks are too large to fit, Dave, 38, relies on calls to his Port Charlotte home for business. With no electricity or phone for six days, a damaged house with a second mortgage, a wife on unemployment, two young children and other family members who rely on him, he had come to the recreation center, now a temporary FEMA station, desperate for relief, a check, anything to make ends meet. "We're stuck," he managed to choke out.

At the same moment, a wilted receptionist at Five Star Realty in Punta Gorda was sitting at the front desk by an open front door, a fan and her phones powered by a generator, fielding phone calls from real estate investors from around the country, looking for bargains. "Lots of people are calling. I just received a call from England from someone who wanted to know if we had any damaged houses for sale," she said.

As Charlotte County and the survivors of other Florida communities hit by Hurricane Charley sift through the debris of their homes and businesses, the laws of supply and demand are also sifting through the damage, creating winners and losers. And while it's hard to imagine any benefit from the catastrophe at this early stage, experience shows that the aftermath of a hurricane is often a time of unprecedented growth for a community.

"A hurricane is a God-given make-work project," says Dr. Douglas Woodward, an economist at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, who has studied the economic impact of hurricanes. "In six months there will be an economic boom."

Initially, says Woodward, a storm's impact is overwhelmingly negative. And driving through downtown Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, it's hard to get past the loss, now estimated at $20 billion across the state. Almost every home looks damaged. About 6,000 Charlotte County businesses from bridal boutiques to law firms were shut down, their roofs and walls blown away so that they look like doll houses with overturned couches and open cabinets revealing paper files and coffee cups to passersby.

Almost 50,000 jobs in Florida were lost-some for the short term, but many forever. Retail sales have plummeted, and professionals are scouring the want ads. Computer technicians and social workers in Port Charlotte were interviewing for jobs at Wendy's a week after the storm, unsure of whether they'd ever get their old jobs back.

Agriculture took a huge hit. Early estimates of citrus damage-to fruit only, not tree, equipment and facility loss-totaled $150 million. And with the rotting fruit go even more jobs. J. Antonio Villamil, the chairman of Gov. Jeb Bush's Council of Economic Advisors has reported that Florida's economic growth is expected to decline from 4.8 percent in the previous quarter to 4.5 percent for the three months after the hurricane.

Betty Williams, the executive director of Charlotte County's Economic Development Office, was hard-pressed to see any opportunity in the devastation the week after the storm. "I really don't know how this is going to impact us long term," she says. "Of course losing businesses is weighing heavily on my mind, but we're at the point where we're just trying to get people water," she said the day her phones were turned back on.

But in the coming months billions of dollars in federal aid and insurance money will flood the area and a building frenzy will follow, Woodward says, boosting employment and income in the affected communities 20 to 30 percent above the normal trend for the next two years. "Your community will look even better," he says. Woodward calls this the "Jacuzzi effect," the tendency of anyone rebuilding to upgrade, going from a plain old bathtub to a fancy hot tub.

But the Jacuzzi effect was barely evident in the first years after Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, hit Miami-Dade 12 years ago. "It took us almost 10 years to recover," says Curt Ivy, Homestead's city manager who was the police chief back in 1992. "Property values decreased. It's like we were damaged goods. We lost population, our middle class, our retirees."

Bill Kiriloff, the community development director of Florida City, another one of the hardest-hit cities, estimates that Homestead and Florida City lost 6,000 jobs and most of its mom-and-pop businesses. Federal money took a long time to arrive; and when the insurance checks finally came in the mail, people took the money and left town. "We lost 30 percent of our population," he says.

Only in the last few years have Florida City and Homestead changed from communities once entirely dependent on an air force base (destroyed in the storm) and agriculture (also destroyed) to a growing bedroom suburb of Miami filled with young families and skilled workers like dental technicians and legal assistants. The poorly constructed, substandard housing, reduced to splinters in the storm, has been replaced by moderate-income apartments and homes built to new hurricane standards. In Florida City, the highest-priced home in 1999 was $92,500; today, the lowest-priced new house on the market is $185,000. Most of the trailer parks vanished with the storm, never to return.

National brand retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Applebee's replaced the mom-and-pops, adding new jobs and tax dollars as well as spin-off businesses that cluster around big box retailers. Kiriloff says Florida City and Homestead were bound to gentrify at some point since they contained some of the last developable land left near Miami. But Hurricane Andrew wiped the slate clean and the city governments, which provided those all-important incentives and subsidies to attract major businesses, accelerated the process. Without such incentives, a damaged community is "trying to go to the prom in a torn dress," he warns. "Waive your impact fees. Give them [Fortune 500 companies] $500,000 in infrastructure."

But Charlotte County is not Homestead or Florida City. It is a coastal community; and coastal communities, which historically attract residential and commercial development, are amazingly resilient, says Woodward.

If Destin, a sleepy fishing community in the Florida Panhandle before Hurricane Opal hit in 1995, is any model, a hurricane can bring economic opportunity to a coastal community. Kellie Joe Kilberg, the director of operations and development for Okaloosa County at the time Opal hit, said, "Destin became a destination" after the hurricane and recovered much more quickly than Homestead and Florida City. Government officials learned from the chaotic and excruciatingly slow relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew. In Florida, post-Andrew, emergency relief has been streamlined so that government agencies and private businesses can talk to one another and coordinate aid. Even the day before Hurricane Charley hit, federal and state workers were poised to enter the affected communities, as opposed to the days and weeks it took to get them into Miami-Dade in the aftermath of Andrew. (And in a presidential election year, with the president's brother the governor of Florida, many forecasters are betting that federal dollars flow even faster to hard-hit areas.)

Insurance companies in Florida are also in a better position today. After Andrew, when 11 insurance companies went bankrupt, unable to pay claims on 16,000 insured homes, the Florida Legislature passed laws to regulate the industry, forcing companies to spread their risk and establishing The Florida Hurricane Catastrophic Fund, which basically is insurance for insurance companies. Florida also created a state-sponsored joint underwriting association called Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to insure risks that insurance companies wouldn't undertake. Insurance companies also raised their rates while limiting coverage. This combination of factors means that, so far, insurance companies can cover the losses from Hurricane Charley and, says Scott Johnson, executive vice president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, probably won't raise their prices.

Destin, Kilberg says, is a different community since Opal. "It cleared out the fishing community," she says. "The old buildings are gone." Property values skyrocketed within a year, and now Destin is a thriving upscale Gulf-front community. The downside, of course, is that affordable housing and the historic population of fishing families are gone.

So what will happen in Charlotte County? "This is the end of Charlotte County as they know it," predicts Kathy Baylis, who heads up the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County. "While it's a loss to many individuals, there is opportunity there. Charlotte County is on a prime piece of real estate, not just in Florida, but in the nation. It has a lot waterfront and a lot of it is still pristine."

Hence, the flurry of real estate activity. Marsha Richman of Coral Springs drove to Punta Gorda and began posting signs immediately after the storm: "I will buy your house cheap," they said. While some people were ready to run her out of town as an opportunist bent on profiting from others' misfortunes, Richman, the owner of Homebuyer 4U, Inc., said, "Some people who want to get out, who want to save their credit or prevent foreclosure, think I'm a hero. I got a bunch of calls today. After Hurricane Andrew, people were kissing me."

An exodus of residents and businesses is one of the biggest fears of Charlotte's economic development officials. And there will be an "out migration," Ivy predicts. Many of Port Charlotte's homes, built decades ago, are small, dated and owned by retirees from the Midwest. Many seniors-and there are plenty of them in Charlotte County-may not want to stay and rebuild; others won't be able to find an affordable place to rent since 50 percent of the housing has been damaged, nor will they be able to afford the costs of building a brand-new home. Some of them will take their insurance money and leave, predicts 74-year-old Vernon Peeples, a longtime Punta Gorda resident, former state legislator and local historian, whose insurance agency, Peeples Agency, Inc., has been on Punta Gorda's Marion Avenue since 1952. "One couple in their 80s couldn't wait to get their check and move to Mount Dora," he says.

But after the initial shock and plummeting home prices, property values will begin to climb upward, predicts Woodward. Already real estate investors who own property along the canals are looking at their demolished homes and seeing dollar signs. Over the last few years, the land has become far more valuable than the small homes resting on them. Nearly anyone who wants to sell will eventually be able to sell at a profit. New homes will have to meet new building codes, which means they'll be larger, better constructed and likely to feature the latest amenities. And the new buyers will come.

"I guarantee you won't be abandoned," economist Woodward says. "Coastal property is a limited quantity. People will forget about the hurricane. They [newcomers] may be more affluent. Tourists won't even think about it."

Peeples, who has been through at least seven hurricanes since moving to Punta Gorda 72 years ago, has no doubt that Charlotte County will recover. And, a week after the storm, in his steamy offices that were beginning to smell a bit moldy from the lack of electricity, he was philosophical about the businesses and people who choose to leave. "This place doesn't stay the same even if you don't have a hurricane," he says. "Many people who come here have the concept that they want it to be the way it was when they got here. But this is not the Punta Gorda I knew in the 1930s. It's not the Punta Gorda I knew in the '50s. We have a turnover rate in population every eight years in Charlotte County, and we've already had a cultural change that's been very sudden because of the avalanche of people flowing here in recent years. The hurricane just escalates the change."

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