Two storms, one story about climate change’s price tag
When people talk about the cost of climate change, they often start with pairs of names and places: Andrew and Homestead. Michael and Mexico Beach. Ian and Fort Myers. And the latest, Nicole and Wilbur-by-the-Sea.
Expect more hell-made matches as warmer seas breed bigger and more vicious storms — and politicians continue to ignore the clarion call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find ways to combat the widespread impact of global warming. While storm losses are just one part of the cost, every Floridian bears the price in higher insurance premiums, taxpayer-funded storm relief and other realities.
The two most recent named storms to hit Florida — Ian and Nicole — frame this potential cost in terms that make it startlingly clear.
Ian, which first made landfall in Florida Sept. 28, may well be the costliest storm in Florida history. It is already the deadliest of the modern era: A late shift in the storm’s path put many in danger with little time to evacuate. Florida saw at least 146 deaths, with an NBC news analysis pegging 118 of those directly to the storm. Dozens drowned. Others died when equipment keeping them alive failed, or from infections, falls or delays in care caused by floodwaters.
The financial tally isn’t as clear. Various analytics firms project damage estimates from Ian at $47 billion to $70 billion in Florida or more. That puts it in contention for the costliest storm in state history; adjusted for inflation, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 comes out to less than $50 billion, and Hurricane Irma was around the $50 billion mark as well.
Many of the same properties damaged by Ian were also affected by claims after 2004′s Hurricane Charley, and ones that were brought up to code tended to fare better, construction industry news site Building Construction and Design reported. But few buildings can withstand a storm surge like Ian’s, pegged at 10-15 feet, without major damage.
Now, a third element is worth worrying about: Coastal erosion. Florida sees erosion with every storm, and it even lost portions of State Road A1A after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. But rarely is private property damage as stark as it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Nicole.
Nicole was a much weaker storm than Ian, but it dramatically amplified Ian’s damage when it hit Florida Nov. 10, particularly in the quaint hamlet of Wilbur-by-the-Sea and adjacent, condo-dominated Daytona Beach Shores. Portions of 35 beachfront homes collapsed into the surf, and 16 hotels or condos have been deemed unsafe.
Many state and federal elected officials are still aggressive about rebuilding on thousands of acres where homes, condos, hotels and businesses have been badly damaged or destroyed. Four years after Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle and reduced 85% of the small tourist-oriented town of Mexico Beach to rubble, construction is bustling.
But look at the most expensive storms in the state’s history and ask yourself: How much devastation can the state’s deeply wounded insurance industry and taxpayer-backed subsidies absorb, and does it make sense to rebuild?
For many property owners, the issue should already be decided. If their home or business is in a flood-prone area and requires at least half its current value in repair, a recent rule by the National Flood Insurance Program prohibits rebuilding unless the property is elevated above the 100-year flood plain.
Many local property owners cannot afford that. Yet southwest Florida’s property market is still running hot; real estate pros told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that investors are swarming the area, looking to scoop up properties at flood-sale prices. Their hopes of rebuilding are undeniably buoyed by discussions at the county level that could provide politically advantageous wiggle room around flood insurance rules.
When will they ever learn? Maybe never, so long as much of the cost of rebuilding is paid with someone else’s money.
We get it. People will always be driven by the desire to live near the coast. But it’s time to face reality. For many of the properties pulverized by wind, inundated by floods or tossed into the sea, rebuilding should no longer be an option. For others, rebuilding should be sharply restricted — and taxpayer-funded subsidies rolled back.
It’s a harsh choice. But it’s one that Florida leaders will have to make — or have it made for them if they don’t.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at [email protected].