Florida has gone 3,270 days without a hurricane – nearly nine years and, by far, the longest stretch on record (the next longest streak is 5 seasons from 1980-1984, in records dating back to 1851). Meanwhile, the Sunshine state’s population and development have boomed.
Florida is long overdue for a destructive hurricane and has never had so many people and so much property in the way. This dangerous state of affairs is compounded by the potential for complacency and lack of recent experience. When hurricanes don’t strike over such a long period of time, some people may be lulled into a false sense of security and/or forget how horrible hurricanes can be.
And then there are newcomer Floridians who haven’t ever had to endure a hurricane. Weather.com notes that more than 1 million people have moved to Florida since Wilma in 2005, the last hurricane to hit the state. “That’s potentially 1 million people who are inexperienced with the impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms and lack the experience boarding up a home, cleaning out a flooded home or battling mandatory evacuation traffic,” Weather.com writes.
It’s not a matter of if but when an active cycle of hurricanes returns to Florida. In 2004 and 2005 alone, seven hurricanes hit (Charley, Frances, Jeanne, and Ivan in 2004; Dennis, Katrina, and Wilma in 2005.).
South Florida, in particular, is a sitting duck. The population there has skyrocketed, putting more people and more assets at risk. Slate’s Eric Holthaus notes a major hurricane hasn’t directly struck South Florida since Andrew in 1992 and that the economy has exploded ever since. “According to the OECD (PDF), Miami now has the largest exposed coastal assets of any city in the world,” Holthaus writes.
The Palm Beach Post reported that if the 1926 hurricane, Miami’s strongest on record, hit today, the damage would total $125 billion (in 2012 dollars) – exceeding Katrina, according to the Boston-based risk management consultants Karen Clark & Co.
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, surmises the toll would be even worse. “We estimate … that the 1926 Miami storm would result in more than $180 billion in damage were it to hit in 2014,” he wrote in op-ed in USA Today.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management recognizes the risk these storm pose and the perils of complacency, says Aaron Gallaher, communications director. “We’re currently in a outreach and preparedness effort to remind people that it just takes one hurricane to change the landscape of the entire community,” Gallaher said.
Gallaher described an integrated strategy to raise hurricane awareness that includes its “Get a Plan” Website, social media outreach, and early education efforts that span elementary through high school. Florida governor Rick Scott fully backs the effort, Gallaher said, and has twice addressed hurricane preparedness this year in public appearances.
Regarding the possibility of a devastating major hurricane hitting a population center like Miami, Gallaher said: “We exercise for that, we plan for that in May… when all 67 counties play a part in a state-wide hurricane response exercise.”
But with all of the real estate nakedly exposed to the elements, preparation may only go so far.
“The number of people living near the Florida seashore has jumped by about 1.1 million since 1990, to 4.8 million – an increase more than four times greater than in Washington, the state with the next highest increase,” says the lengthy article from Reuters, Why Americans are flocking to their sinking shores. “And Florida’s increase doesn’t count part-time residents who spend their winters in the state.”
It adds: “The latest wave of explosive seaside growth has occurred in the four decades since the state enacted laws to temper coastal development, protect the beaches that are Florida’s most treasured natural resource, and curb the rising costs of damage from tropical storms.”