Hurricane price tags soaring on crowded U.S. coast
By Jim Loney
MIAMI (Reuters) - The damage caused to U.S. coastal cities by hurricanes promises to rise into the stratosphere, raising concerns about a possible $500 billion storm and prompting calls for tougher building codes.
Devastating hurricanes like 1992's Andrew and Katrina of 2005 have failed to put a dent in massive construction along the hurricane-vulnerable Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where millions of people face evacuation when a storm threatens.
Katrina, which swamped New Orleans, was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with damages of $80 billion.
But a study published earlier this year found that a 1926 hurricane that struck Miami would have caused $157 billion in damage, adjusting for inflation and current building.
The study suggested there could be a $500 billion hurricane by the 2020s.
"It's not that far fetched. The damages seem to be doubling every 10 years," said Max Mayfield, former director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "As we continue to build at the coastline, the damage is going to continue to go up. There's no way around that."
The higher prices tags are the inevitable result of U.S. migration to the coast, as well as rising real estate values, experts said at the U.S. National Hurricane Conference held this month in Orlando.
The population of coastal counties on the Atlantic and Gulf increased from 66.8 million in 1980 to 88.3 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Miami Beach, with its miles of expensive oceanfront hotels and condos, is considered a prime target for a future costly mega-storm. The Galveston-Houston area of Texas, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., are all vulnerable.
But New York City, with its billions of dollars in real estate, could be the site of the eventual $500 billion storm.
The Long Island-New Jersey area could see a 30-foot storm surge in a big hurricane, representing one of the most alarming danger zones in the country.
NOT JUST PROPERTY, BUT LIVES
"If you get the Long Island Express headed up there ... you take out all the subways, you take out the infrastructure. You're not just talking about an area impacted, you're talking about the financial center of the world. Yeah, it's possible," Florida emergency management chief Craig Fugate said.
The rising danger is not only to property but to lives.
The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 killed 372 people when the city's population was only 140,000. Now, more than 2.3 million live in the same area.
"I don't believe any place in the country is building highways with hurricane evacuations in mind," said Bill Read, the current National Hurricane Center director. "If you keep pushing more and more cars onto them in a mass evacuation, the length of time it takes people to evacuate will increase."
Despite the huge damage toll of recent storms -- $26 billion for Andrew and $20 billion for Wilma in 2005 on top of Katrina's $80 billion, several vulnerable coastal states have no statewide building codes. Louisiana only enacted one after Katrina.
"You would think with Andrew and Katrina that would be enough to make something happen but it hasn't," Mayfield said.
Miami-Dade County's post-Andrew building code, considered one of the nation's toughest, only requires construction to meet a Category 4 hurricane, one step below the maximum Category 5. Less than 10 percent of the county's buildings are new enough to have been built to that standard.
With no hope of stopping people from moving to coastal areas, Fugate said a "capitalistic model" that stops subsidizing the risks of coastal living might be needed.
That could involve raising insurance rates for coast dwellers, something that is in effect already happening, reducing subsidized national flood insurance, or even forcing developers to build fortified strongholds within their condo towers so a building's residents could be housed there, rather than evacuated, in a hurricane.
"You can build in these areas, but it's going to cost a lot more money," Fugate said. "What we do now is create a system that doesn't address the risk, it minimizes it. We subsidize the risk."
(Editing by Michael Christie and Todd Eastham)