Hurricane season officially ends today. Thank goodness. Tampa Bay got lucky again — barely — but Hurricane Ian and then Nicole landed one-two punches on Florida and exposed different vulnerabilities.
Hurricane Ian crashed into Fort Myers Beach on Sept. 28 as a huge Category 4 storm, devastating coastal communities and isolating Sanibel Island. Ian killed at least 127 Floridians. The flooding was felt far inland — the Peace River near Arcadia swelled from storm surge and biblical rainfall. Normally 130 feet wide, the river spread more than a mile. CoreLogic, a property information and analytics firm, estimates the total cost of wind and flood damage in Florida between $40 billion and $64 billion, making it one of the most expensive storms in state history.
Just 43 days later, Hurricane Nicole hit near Vero Beach as a Category 1. The damage was much less — CoreLogic estimates privately insured gross losses to be under $750 million. But Nicole exposed another hurricane danger: Water can undermine and destroy buildings that are too close to the ocean, even if they are hardened against the wind.
These two late-season storms are raising hard questions about where and how to build. They are also a reminder that even Floridians who were out of harm’s way will pay a steep price. The property insurance market is in danger, and it will cost everyone more — perhaps much more — in the future. Homeowners opening their insurance renewals, assuming they weren’t dropped altogether, are already feeling this unpleasant reality.
There are lessons learned:
• Hardened homes can hold up far better to the wind. In Punta Gorda, for example, homes that were rebuilt to meet modern codes — roof tie-downs, secondary water membranes, impact glass or window coverings and the like — after Hurricane Charley hit in 2004 survived Ian better than older homes. Florida is just rolling out the new My Safe Florida Home program, which will help eligible home owners retrofit older homes to modern standards. It’s a great idea, but the program is too modest in scope, and the Legislature should broaden it so that more homeowners could benefit. The pot of money is far too small to meet the need.
• While the Peace River flooding was bad, the damage could have been much worse. The floods closely tracked what the Federal Emergency Management Agency designates as a Special Flood Hazard Area, which suppressed development there. “Without constraints in development in the (zone), flood damages would have skyrocketed,” the CoreLogic report said. In other words, it pays to plan where we allow development to occur. And it’s not just coastal properties at risk.
• The property insurance crisis isn’t going away, and the Legislature needs to deal with that reality. It will require major surgery, not a band-aid. Politicians need to figure out a market-based solution that will keep private insurance available and reasonably affordable to home owners. It won’t be easy. Rates will go up, probably a lot. Risk is real, and actuarial tables don’t lie. But there are answers in where we build and how we build that can reduce the risk, and that’s a part of the solution, if only a part. The state will have to find creative ways to mitigate the pain of higher insurance rates as they are inevitably phased in. It may be necessary to reimagine the system of reinsurance — insurance for the insurers. Ultimately, a system of private insurance needs to be sustainable in the marketplace for Florida to continue to grow.
• The Babcock Ranch development between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda, with its solar-powered community, underground power lines and retaining ponds that kept houses from flooding, showed the art of the possible in the face of Ian’s winds and rain. That community weathered the storm.
• Residents of Tampa Bay got a chance to test their individual preparedness in real time. For the next hurricane, we should all remember what we got right and wrong. Residents and local governments should ask: Were we safe at home and if not, were we they able to evacuate to higher, safer ground in time?
We’ve got six months before this starts all over again. Now is the time to plan — and to keep making those hard decisions about how best to protect Florida and its residents from future storms. If we keep our heads in the sand, these hurricanes will just blast the sand away.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.