Winds of Change

By staff June 1, 2006

Andrew got our attention, but even though it reduced much of Dade County to crinkled metal and splintered wood, the storm fizzled out by the time it passed over Southwest Florida. Besides, that was 14 years ago, and many of today's residents weren't living here then. But in 2004, hurricanes started sweeping through Florida again-Frances, Jeanne, Ivan and Charley, which flattened much of Charlotte County, and last year, Dennis and Wilma, which came ashore just south of Naples.

At first they seemed like a novelty, something to shake our heads over and even make dark jokes about; "Can you believe it," we'd say, "here we go again!"

But if anyone was still laughing, Katrina put an end to that, obliterating a major American city overnight. Almost a year later, hundreds of miles of debris still litter the Gulf Coast, tens of thousands of homes are rotting on their foundations, and for all the brave talk, most of the victims are still suffering from problems that seem insoluble.

Suddenly, hurricanes have gone from an occasional worry to a grim way of life. Our blissfully quiet summers and falls have turned into long, anxious vigils, and forecasters are predicting a flurry of more storms-and more monster storms-over the next two decades. If they're right, how will that affect Southwest Florida? Will years of hurricanes destroy our homes, economy and way of life?

Since 1851, when hurricane record keeping began, Florida has seen most of the nation's hurricane action. No other state even comes close. Of the 277 hurricanes that have hit the U.S. coastline, 112 hit Florida. Of the 96 major hurricanes (a Category 3, 4 or 5) to batter the United States, 37 barreled into Florida.

The Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900 was the most murderous ever, killing 8,000. But Florida's 1928 hurricane killed 2,500 near Lake Okeechobee, and a 1935 hurricane killed 408 in the Florida Keys. And until Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed $80 billion worth of property, Florida had the three most damaging hurricanes: $26.5 billion in damages for Hurricane Andrew, $15 billion for Charley and $14.2 billion for Ivan in 2004. (Southwest Florida has been hit several times in recent history, most notably in 1960, by Hurricane Donna, which caused $300 million in damage, or about $20 billion in today's dollars, to the Naples-Fort Myers area, and by an unnamed storm that hit Sarasota in 1944. That storm did $63 million in destruction, or close to $25 billion in today's dollars.)

"One big reason why we're seeing these huge amounts of damage is that we're seeing massive population growth along the coastal areas," says Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. And Southwest Florida is especially vulnerable to the most damaging element of a hurricane-storm surge, he says. It was Katrina's surge rather than the winds that swept away entire towns along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and that region was much more sparsely populated than Southwest Florida, home to millions of people and one of the fastest-growing areas in the country.

Experts agree a period of increased hurricane activity began in 1995. No one is sure why hurricanes go through varying cycles of activity, but changes in ocean salinity, currents and temperatures may play a role. And many scientists believe that global warming is feeding the growth of storms, heating the oceans all over the planet enough to turn ordinary storms into monsters. Whatever the causes, for the next 20 years or so, roughly three major hurricanes a year should form in the Atlantic basin, compared with one and a half major hurricanes for the 25- to 30-year period before that, says Phil Klotzbach, a research associate at Colorado State University, which does an annual hurricane forecast.

And some years, of course, will be more active than the average, possibly as active as 2005, which delivered a fury of firsts: the first time 27 named storms formed during the season, the first time 15 grew into hurricanes, the first time four major hurricanes hit the United States, and the first time three Category 5 hurricanes formed in a single season.

For 2006, Colorado State University is predicting 17 named storms and nine hurricanes, five of them major--or about twice as much activity as the average year. To compare, 2004 was also about twice the average, and 2005 was three times more active than the average.

But not every year will be like the last two. "You're likely to see El Niño [a disturbance in tropical Pacific weather patterns that usually leads to fewer storms in the Atlantic] in the next five to six years, and that will reduce activity," Klotzbach says.

While Katrina changed New Orleans and much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline in a matter of hours-and in ways that have still to play out-hurricanes do not usually alter the course of history so dramatically.

"Hurricanes speed things up," says Betty Morrow, a professor emeritus at Florida International University who has studied the effects of Hurricane Andrew. "They don't make social change that's off the wall, but they do accelerate movements that are already under way."

In Florida, for example, the recent hurricanes have intensified something that was already happening-the replacement of older, modestly priced coastal properties with more expensive structures. Drive through Punta Gorda or Pensacola, and you are looking into Florida's Tomorrowland, with upscale new buildings and homes popping up all along the water. Only the affluent will be able to afford many of the new properties. That's a big reason why many people left Charlotte County after Charley, making it one of the few Florida counties that didn't grow in population last year. Some older, working-class residents could no longer afford housing there; their dream of a sunny Florida retirement in a little ranch house or waterfront trailer park died when Charley came screaming up Charlotte Harbor.

Much of Southwest Florida's prosperity comes from its growth, and some economists worry that the recent hurricanes could slow that growth. But though Charlotte County didn't grow during 2005, the rest of the region and the state did, and demographers predict even more growth ahead, with the population expected to jump from nearly 5.5 million to 23.5 million over the next 15 years.

Historically, hurricanes have had only a short-term impact on population growth, points out Stan Smith, director of the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research. When Hurricane Andrew hit Southeast Florida, the area initially suffered a population decline, but it recovered within two years, he says. And most demographers believe Charlotte County will start growing again as it rebuilds.

"If you were growing rapidly before the hurricane, you're going to grow rapidly after the hurricane," Smith says.

Still, the hurricanes of the last two years have driven some people away. And some snowbirds and tourists are considering alternative destinations.

"It's all tied to an individual's perception of risk," says Roger-Marc DeSouza, a technical director at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. "There is a gut calculation in this. It's whether the risk is worth it to stay there."

It may not be for Jill Davis, 45, a manager at Lynches Pub & Grub on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota. "I find it just too stressful to have one storm after another," she says. She's leaving Longboat Key for the mainland, and "if it keeps on with this heavy pattern, I will probably leave [Sarasota altogether]," she says.

But Charley didn't drive Norma Hoehne out of Florida, even though it destroyed her mobile home in Punta Gorda. Hoehne, a 65-year-old retired retail credit manager for a plumbing wholesale house from Oshkosh, Wis., and her husband, Wayne, chose to buy a new mobile home further inland, in Leesburg.

"It's still better than living in Wisconsin in the winter," says Hoehne. "No matter what, you take your chances. You could get killed walking across the street by a car. Anything can happen. You can't live in fear."

Hoehne's brother and sister-in-law, Robert and Elaine Kreager, lived in the same park, but their mobile home escaped damage. Nevertheless, in February the couple decided to put their mobile home up for sale and look for someplace else to live in Florida.

Their park has changed, they say, becoming a haven for construction and FEMA workers that flooded in after Charley. And then they saw new development rising all around them and decided the cost of living in Charlotte County would soon be rising, too.

"They have priced me out of this area," says Robert Kreager, 72. "Southwest Florida is becoming a haven for the rich."

The past two years of hurricanes have affected businesses in different ways. Some businesses expanded and flourished in the post-Charley building boom, some were unaffected, and some permanently closed. And others-as many as 9 percent, according to a post-storm survey of Florida residents funded by FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers-planned to move to a place with fewer storms.

In January, 2-10 Home Buyers Resale Warranty of Aurora, Calif., announced it was closing its 87-employee customer service office in Plantation, Fla., and moving it to Cincinnati. The reason? "The number of hurricanes seems to be getting worse, and it doesn't look like it's going to get any better over the next 10 years," said David Jasko, president of 2-10 Home Buyers Resale Warranty Corp.

Hurricanes have another effect on businesses, says Morrow, the sociology professor from FIU. "Hurricanes are tough on small businesses. There tends to be a gain of national chains after an event because they have the resources to get up and going while the mom and pops are still collecting insurance."

Tourism accounts for a huge chunk of Southwest Florida's economy, and many who depend on it worried that two years of nonstop TV coverage of menacing storms would keep visitors away, especially during the summer months. And some Southwest Florida businesses that serve tourists do say they saw fewer customers during that period.

Bill Hoyt, owner of 14 candle shops throughout Florida, including one on St. Armands, says some of his shops lost 20 percent to 50 percent in business during the last two years. His Key West shop did around $650,000 per year three years ago, prior to the parade of hurricanes. Now it's bringing in less than $350,000. He thinks that decline has something to do with perception: Key West did not suffer the damage of other communities, but it was on the edge of multiple hurricanes these past two years. For now, Hoyt is aggressively expanding outside Florida, to places such as Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. He's opened a new warehouse-outside Florida-to protect his inventory.

"A lot of my thinking and planning are done around the probability of getting hit by a hurricane, and that wasn't part of my business model before," he says.

Bob Sestile, who shares shop space with Hoyt, owns Renaissance Fragrances, a perfume essence shop on St. Armands. Two years ago, he planned to add another shop in Florida, likely in Pinellas County. But now he's looking to Mystic, Conn., or Traverse City, Mich., for his expansion. "We need to diversify Mother Nature's risk," said Sestile as he worked the counter of his shop one day this spring, offering scent samples on cotton swabs. "We're too exposed to the risk associated with hurricanes."

Overall, however, tourism is continuing to grow in Florida, and some state officials are predicting even bigger increases over the next five years. About 80 million people a year visit the state, and nine out of 10 of them have been to Florida before. A Florida vacation is part of their lifestyle, say the experts, and they will continue to come.

"Florida has proved it's resilient. We've had two years of hurricanes, but the overall number of visitors has risen by 4 percent to 5 percent per year," says Mark Bonn, a business professor at Florida State University who has done tourism research. He dismisses concerns of a slump in tourism as "sensationalism by the media-how many times do they show those same images of the flipping sign and the leaning palm tree?" Viewers see past such hype, he says, and call their travel agent or relatives in Florida, who tell them to come on down.

Not everyone shares Bonn's optimism. In fact, the pace of visitors slowed last winter, growing by only 0.3 percent in the last three months of the year. And this spring, Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, discovered that Americans are becoming increasingly wary of visiting Florida during hurricane season. Only 57 percent of the people Visit Florida surveyed said they would consider a summer visit to the state, down from 74 percent in October 2004.

Fears of a hurricane may slow tourism, but an actual hit can stop it almost completely, at least until resorts and amenities are rebuilt. When South Seas Resort, the major source of customers for many shops and restaurants on Sanibel and Captiva islands, had to close down for almost two years to rebuild after Charley, businesses all over the islands suffered.

But if tourism dips briefly after a hurricane, other industries, such as construction and medical, rise, Bonn says. "Insurance money is being pumped in [to areas like Charlotte County] for reconstruction," he points out. That means you have FEMA employees, construction workers and others filling hotels and accommodations for extended stays and earning salaries that are spent in the community."

An Andrew or a Katrina can reduce a landscape to rubble, obliterating every landmark so that dazed survivors literally cannot recognize their own neighborhoods. Shouldn't such a demonstration of nature's fury make people think twice about building again?

On the contrary; even the day after the storm, most people vow to rebuild and recover, and communities that have been hit by hurricanes are seeing some of the most rapid development anywhere, often rebuilding even more densely than before the storm.

Optimism and a belief in the future seem to be an unquenchable part of human nature, and many experts believe that will be true even if we get a wave of major storms in the years ahead. "The perception in the marketplace is that hurricanes are random and unlikely," says Stan Geberer of Fishkind & Associates, an Orlando economic consulting firm. "If we continue to experience record storm seasons and damage, we expect perceptions in the marketplace to change over time but not very dramatically."

An estimated 1 million new homes are being repaired or rebuilt in hurricane-ravaged cities along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas. And because of the stricter building codes instituted after Andrew, the new Florida homes will be stronger and more storm-resistant than the ones they replace. (Many people are responding to the threat of more intense storm seasons by upgrading their older homes, adding impact-resistant windows or shutters and other safety features.) Some experts speculate that the storms will spur advances in technology and engineering that will make the next generation of structures able to withstand even monster storms. Jennifer Jarratt, past chair of the Association of Professional Futurists and a principal in Leading Futurists LLC in Washington, D.C., says that such advances could give Florida homeowners enough security to consider hurricanes a mere "annoyance."

While Florida's real estate boom has flattened out in some communities, investors in Punta Gorda and Pensacola have been scavenging these areas for prime real estate, building new homes and condos in the footprint of the previous devastation. Rather than dipping, real estate prices in Charlotte County actually rose, with some properties reselling again in a matter of weeks for big profits.

"There are not enough contractors to go around," says Debbye Fitzpatrick, a real estate agent with Randol Realty in Port Charlotte. "We are in a state of rebuilding. But would we have grown anyway? Without a doubt."

After the storms in the Panhandle, some properties almost doubled in value in a matter of weeks. Some people moved away after Ivan in 2004 and Dennis in 2005. But Pensacola still seems more crowded than before the hurricane, says John Dosh, Escambia County's emergency management chief.

"There are people who had enough of these events, and they sell out and move elsewhere," Dosh says. "But there seem to be plenty of people to take their place." And those new arrivals tend to be more affluent than those who left.

"The poor people leave and the rich people come back," says Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York, who specializes in demography.

In some respects, hurricanes serve as a form of urban renewal, a time when a community can start over again with a new plan, says J. Steven Picou, a sociologist at the University of South Alabama in Mobile who studies the effects of disasters.

"Communities that are hit by hurricanes come back better than ever before," he says. "Older structures go, and they are replaced by improved structures."

In the process, of course, communities may lose some of their historic character and charm. The gracious antebellum mansions that once overlooked the Gulf in Mississippi, for example, will be replaced by condos and casino hotels, and any Florida beachfront community hit by a major storm will probably lose picturesque old beach bars and cottages to new high-rises and megahomes.

Of all of the effects of multiple hurricanes, changes in property insurance will likely affect more Floridians than anything else. Rates have skyrocketed over the past two years, and larger increases are expected. This year Allstate dropped 95,000 customers, Nationwide declined to renew 35,000, and about a dozen insurance companies have completely pulled out of the state.

At Bay Aristocrat Village, a 361-mobile-home park in Clearwater, manager Patricia Barnett says most of the residents have simply given up on insurance. "Fifty percent of this village is non-renewed," she says. Insurance agents say even some wealthy customers are refusing to pay the ever-soaring cost of insuring big waterfront homes.

Citizens Property Insurance, the state's insurer of last resort, holds more than 800,000 policies now and is adding 20,000 to 30,000 policies a month. Its rates are expected to climb 37 percent on homeowners' policies and 80 percent for windstorm policies by mid-year and maybe more: The bailout for Citizens' 2005 hurricane damage has swelled to $1.7 billion. And Florida property owners who still get insurance from a private company were assessed a 6.8 percent increase in premiums to cover Citizens' $516 million deficit in 2004.

"That means millionaires living in mansions on the water in Marco Island or Miami Beach are being subsidized by grandmothers on fixed incomes in trailer parks in Gainesville," says Bob Hartwig of the Insurance Information Network in New York. "It's an untenable situation."

And flood insurance could also become untenable, if new hurricanes devastate heavily populated areas of the state, and the nation's taxpayers decide they don't want to keep underwriting the cost of constant rebuilding along the Florida coast.

"Counting Katrina, which brushed Florida, six of the 10 most expensive insurance disasters in world history have taken place in Florida in the last two years," says Sam Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Insurance Council in Tallahassee. "Right now, everything is on the table."

If insurance becomes unavailable-or unaffordable-how many property owners would be willing to take that risk? For most homeowners, their home is their largest asset; those in coastal areas might choose to sell rather than risk losing everything in a single storm. Would all those ultra-wealthy newcomers who have been flooding into Southwest Florida still want a second or third home on a Naples golf course or the Sanibel beachfront if they could not insure it, and would all those predicted baby boomers still decide to purchase a Florida retirement home?

Even Worth magazine, which advises the ultra-wealthy on financial issues, is worried about the effects of hurricanes on insurance-and the national budget. According to an article in the March issue, the billions of federal dollars being poured into hurricane relief may raise tax bills for the wealthy, by causing Congress to reconsider extending the Bush tax cuts. Worth even floats the idea of a national disaster-insurance program that would require those in disaster-prone areas to pay the highest premiums, offering "individuals a financial incentive to live in less risky areas-or if not, to bear some of the cost."

Ultimately, what happens in Southwest Florida over the next few decades probably depends on how frequently hurricanes hit. If every year is like the last two, the scenario will be different than if there are a couple calmer seasons in between. Because ultimately, it is about how many hurricanes we can psychologically take.

"It has to finally percolate that there's really been a change," says Beveridge, the demographer and professor of sociology at Queens College in New York. "That would lead to an overall change in the value of Florida-the perception that it's now going to have hurricanes all the time. That will change the calculation of people going there."

Pam Daniel also contributed to this story.


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