“Besides the unimaginable destruction and widespread homelessness, it would be a dagger to the economic heart of the region,” Norcross said.
The zone affected would include South Beach, the Port of Miami, the banking district, the Miami International Airport, and the Coral Gables and Doral business districts.
Such a scenario cannot entirely be ruled out with Hurricane Irma.
When Andrew ravaged large areas of South Florida in 1992, Norcross was the chief meteorologist at WTVJ, Miami’s NBC affiliate. He stayed on air for 23 straight hours and is considered a hero by many who was glued to his coverage.
Andrew, as bad as it was, wasn’t the worst-case scenario for South Florida. While it ravaged the Homestead area, the more densely-populated coast from Miami to Fort Lauderdale missed the brunt of the storm.
What happens if it doesn’t this time?
“Tourism and business would be incapacitated for an indeterminate length of time,” Norcross said. “With no jobs and housing, people would have to leave. It is impossible to imagine how the region would resurrect itself and how long it would take.”
Norcross is particularly concerned about the scenario in which the storm surge exceeds 10 feet in the Miami area. “Tens or hundreds of thousands of people would likely be stranded and immobile in their buildings after the storm,” he said. “People staying in high-rise buildings would be safe, if they rode out the storm in a lower-level hallway. But the grounds and streets around the buildings within range of the storm surge would be deep in sand and debris.”
He continued: “So people will be stuck in buildings with no power, no water, likely little or no communications, and no way to get out or get people in with supplies and aid for an extended time after the storm.”
The economic costs of a disaster of this scale are difficult to calculate, but scholars estimate north of $200 billion dollars. In recent decades, the population in southeast Florida has ballooned and an incredible amount of wealth and infrastructure is in harm’s way.
Irma’s exact track over the Florida peninsula is still in flux. It’s possible it will track just far enough west, perhaps over the Everglades, so that the densely-populated Miami to Fort Lauderdale corridor narrowly avoids the worst of Irma’s wrath.
But a small wobble to the east would place Miami and its surroundings in Irma’s northeastern eyewall, where winds are most destructive and the storm surge is maximized.
Even if the worst case doesn’t materialize in Miami, Norcross said he is deeply concerned about South Florida’s readiness for something even less.
“South Florida is not remotely prepared for a Category 3 or higher hurricane,” he said. “In 2005, Hurricane Wilma was a Category 1 in Miami-Dade County and Category 2 in pockets of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. It ended up being the third most expensive hurricane in the history of hurricanes. The government was barely able to stabilize the situation simply due to the large number of people who were really hurting.”
He added: “[Even] if you could get 90 percent of the people to prepare to take total care of themselves for a week or more after a storm, there would still be hundreds of thousands of people needing immediate aid — including many in the most vulnerable populations — in a metropolitan area as large and complex as southeast Florida. And you could never get anywhere close to 90 percent of the population to fully prepare.”