What if they just keep coming?

By staff June 1, 2006

When it comes to hurricanes, I've always been an alarmist. It probably started with watching the Wizard of Oz as a little girl in Illinois. After seeing Dorothy and Toto fly around in that dark twister, I made, "And please, God, don't let there be any tornadoes," the standard closing of every bedtime prayer. Moving to Fort Myers and going through Hurricane Donna in 1963 raised that anxiety to a whole new level. Our family spent that storm racing around our two-story, 1920s-era house, mopping up water that poured through the edges of the old window frames and watching trees outside-18 in all-topple over in the screaming fury. Seeing 60-foot royal palms and even a giant banyan tree get tossed around like twigs was both shocking and awe-inspiring. The everyday rules of nature were being rewritten in front of our eyes.

You don't forget something like that, not even after decades go by with nothing but near-misses, and my friends used to tease me about going into high alert every time a tropical storm formed thousands of miles away. But after the last few years of serial storms-and especially after we all watched Katrina wipe out hundred of miles of the Gulf Coast in just a few hours-nobody is laughing anymore.

Of course, Katrina was an enormous storm, with an apocalyptic storm surge of close to 30 feet. (That's rare, but Sarasota emergency manager Ed McCrane says that in a worst-case scenario, parts of our county could get a surge of 27 feet.) But some scientists say warming ocean waters are fueling the growth of such monster storms, and virtually all agree that for at least the next 20 years, we can expect unusually active hurricane seasons.

In Winds of Change in this issue, award-winning reporter Leonora LaPeters asks a host of experts the big what-if: What could 10 or 20 years of more and bigger hurricanes mean for Florida's growth? It's a critical question, since development feeds every sector of our economy; and with no state income tax, we're dependent on the revenues generated by new homes and people. The good news? So far, hurricanes haven't slowed that growth one bit, demographers told LaPeters, and most predict that even a flurry of new storms won't keep chilly Northerners from continuing to pour into the state.

But not everyone is that sanguine, and those who are most worried aren't developers and demographers-they're insurance experts. Already, private insurers, who are forbidden by Florida law from charging prices commensurate with the risk in vulnerable coastal areas, are starting to leave the state. That means more homeowners must turn to the state-funded Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has racked up a $1.7 billion deficit because of payouts to cover recent hurricane damage. If enough storms hit Florida, at some point, it's going to become unaffordable-or unacceptable politically-to keep pouring public money into rebuilding homes along the coast.

And the same could happen with flood insurance. Almost half the losses the federal flood insurance program is sustaining are being generated by homes that have been damaged more than once in a 10-year period. If hurricanes keep slamming into the same coastal areas, the rest of the country may refuse to bail out those who choose to live in their path.

In almost every report about the coming insurance crises, I keep running across the newest media villain: millionaires who live in waterfront mega-mansions that the rest of us have to subsidize through those government-funded insurance programs. I have a hard time getting too worked up about those slimy characters, since I live on the water myself, and they sure can't be talking about me.

Of course, millionaires aren't as rare as they used to be-if you own even a fairly nice Sarasota home, you're probably halfway there-but by any measure, I don't fit the image of the flush fat cat. Nor do most of my neighbors. They include an elderly couple who's owned their concrete-block ranch house since the late '50s; a nurse; a retired house painter; and, until they recently sold their four-unit apartment to a speculator, a former elementary school teacher and her police dispatcher partner. True, the little house next door that belonged to a fishing captain has given way to a fancy new vacation home owned by the head of an Italian law firm; but the fact is, until the real estate market went crazy five or six years ago, you could buy a small place on the water for about what the average "affordable" Sarasota home costs now. As a result, plenty of everyday people still share water views with the new generation of flashy entrepreneurs and jet setters.

But it's true that my neighbors and I are relying on government insurance to protect our storm-prone homes, and so is almost every other Sarasotan who lives on a barrier island or within a mile or two of water on the mainland. If insurance really does become prohibitively expensive-or even completely unavailable, as some experts predict-we may one day be forced to reconsider our coastal lifestyle.

Yet human beings are resilient and resourceful, and our entire history is about surviving and subduing the forces of nature. As LaPeters points out, parts of Florida that were devastated by recent hurricanes, like Charlotte County and the Panhandle, are rebuilding at a record rate, and real estate prices there have actually risen after the storms.

In addition, Florida already has the most stringent building codes in the nation, and new materials and techniques will continue to make our homes stronger. This winter, we decided to arm our cottage with impact-resistant windows; a colleague and her husband who live a block from the bay on the mainland did the same, and they also purchased a big generator. "We're just adapting to the new reality," she says.

Even barrier islands could become more storm-resistant, although it might take a bitter blow for them to adopt such policies. Requiring homes to adhere to even stricter building and design standards and setting them back just a few more hundred yards from the water could make a huge difference; so could creating and protecting more dunes.

Such measures aren't easy or cheap, and they would almost certainly signal the end of the era when people like me and my neighbors could live in modest homes along the waterfront. But in truth, that era was already ending. As one expert told La Peters, "Hurricanes don't create drastic changes. They only accelerate changes that are already happening."


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