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Hurricane Michael Reminds Us It's Past Time to Get Smarter About Where We Build

Since 1970, the state has added nearly 15 million residents, most of them flowing into storm-prone counties that border the Gulf or the Atlantic.

(TNS) - Avoidance is a great way to mitigate risk. As in, get out of trouble’s way, or don’t be there to begin with.

When it comes to hurricanes, that good advice is getting harder to heed. In Florida, we continue to build along our coasts, often just a few feet above sea level. New homes spring up on barrier islands. Condo towers rise where mangroves once grew.

Since 1970, the state has added nearly 15 million residents, most of them flowing into storm-prone counties that border the Gulf or the Atlantic.

We aren’t alone. The other Gulf states including Texas have peppered their waterfronts with development. So have Georgia and the Carolinas. Some inland states allow construction in flood plains, and then rebuild each time the rivers overflow.

The build-up is a main reason storms cost so much now. We’ve enlarged the bull’s-eye, making it harder for hurricanes to miss population centers. Plus, what we’ve built costs more. The homes are bigger, the hotels taller. That inflates the price when storms knock them down or flood them out.

Hurricane Michael rumbled ashore far away from any big cities. Even so, early estimates put the tally at up to $4.5 billion, not including losses covered by the National Flood Insurance Program or damage to uninsured property.

It’s no surprise then that even when adjusted for inflation, 9 of the 10 costliest U.S. storms struck in the past 15 years. The only exception is Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 brute that slammed into South Florida in 1992.

In fact, three of the top five — Harvey, Maria and Irma — hit just last year. They caused a whopping $265 billion in damage.

Just how much is that? It’s the cost of a dozen Hurricane Charleys, the buzzsaw that devastated Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in 2004. It’s 14 Hurricane Hugos, the legendary Category 4 storm that gutted South Carolina in 1989. It’s 25 Hurricane Camilles, the second-most powerful storm ever, which rolled ashore on Mississippi’s coast in 1969 packing 175 mph winds and a stunning 24 feet of storm surge. And, yes, all those rates are adjusted for inflation.

Comparing storm damage comes with caveats. No two hurricanes hit the same place packing the same level of misery. We also have more tools for estimating overall costs.

Still, when Glenn McGillivray, managing director at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, speaks with insurance company executives, they often tell him: "Oh yeah. We are paying a lot more for these types of events. No question about it."

McGillivray worries that the costs will escalate, and that taxpayers will get the bill.

"What we build, how we build and where we build are the three big drivers of loss," he said. "We still build too much way too close to known dangers."

In flood zones, new homes are built higher, sometimes on stilts. On a bigger scale, there’s talk of dikes, levees and other marvels to keep the water at bay.

No doubt, we should embrace technological innovations. But with a 1,300-mile coastline, and an ever-growing population, it’s risky to think Florida can engineer the problem away. That goes double in a state where too many leaders don’t believe the climate is changing or seas are rising. New homes can go up on stilts, but it won’t do much good if residents can’t get to them because the roads flood at every high tide.

We aren’t there yet. There’s still time. And no one’s saying we need to pack up and leave the entire state.

But we should get smarter about where we build and rebuild. Strategic retreat from the most vulnerable areas has to be on the table. That will require tough conversations, iron-willed politicians and innovative policies to encourage residents to move. Some local economies will take a hit, at least temporarily, but doing nothing ensures longer-lasting financial pain.

We’re already subsidizing this folly. Floridians pay the highest homeowners insurance rates in the country. The national flood insurance program needs a massive injection of taxpayer funds to carry on. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has doled out billions in aid just to see state and local governments allow construction on the same vulnerable properties.

And it’s only going to get worse. The warmer climate is like rocket fuel for hurricanes. Expect stronger storms, and ones more likely to carry biblical amounts of rain, like what Harvey dropped on Houston last year. To steal a phrase, so far all we’ve experienced is climate change on training wheels.

"It’s a matter of pay now or pay even more later," McGillivray said. "Or, like we tend to do, pay again and again and again and again."

Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.


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