A trampoline is blown away during the onset of Hurricane Wilma in 2005 in Boca Raton, Fla. (Marc Serota/Reuters)

Florida has had a remarkable run of gambler’s luck over the past decade. It’s been that long since a hurricane struck the state that usually gets them every two years.

Since Hurricane Wilma made landfall at Cape Romano near the pointy end of the state in 2005, about 20 hurricanes have formed in the Atlantic Ocean and hit other states, and more than 60 wobbled off to deep waters without harming the U.S. coast. But Florida’s string of good fortune might be at an end.

A storm is on the horizon, projected to hit the Florida Panhandle late Thursday or early Friday. Forecasters predicted that Tropical Storm Hermine would only gush rain, but they recently elevated it to hurricane status. Floridians have many reasons to worry. The sea level is rising faster than first predicted, and analysts who assess potential property damage say that contributes to Florida being more vulnerable to massive losses than any other state.

Hermine lacks the power to cause a worst-case scenario like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, but even as a Category 1 storm, it will serve as a reminder of what could be. Mere nuisance flooding already causes drainage systems to bubble over in the Miami area, and strong winds can roil Tampa Bay until it’s level with sea walls that guard roads and homes.

In the most extreme hurricane, more than 2.5 million homes could be lost in Florida, according to CoreLogic, a global firm that assesses risks to property. Miami alone could see damage to 780,000 homes, nearly as many as the entire state of Louisiana, which ranked second among at-risk states in CoreLogic’s assessment. Tampa Bay would suffer damage to more than 450,000 homes, not too far below Texas, which ranked third among states. Fixing that much property in the state’s two most populous areas would cost more than $200 billion.


Lisa Bolton and her 3-year-old daughter, Lois, both of Manchester, England, visit Clearwater Beach, Fla., on Wednesday. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

A report by a Boston firm a year earlier estimated that the damage would be far worse. The Tampa Bay area is the nation’s most vulnerable metropolitan area to a storm because the bay acts as a water funnel, Karen Clark & Co. said. Flooding in Tampa Bay alone could amount to $175 billion in damage, the company said. The area includes St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs and about a dozen other coastal cities and towns.

“We’re basically on a peninsula out here hanging off the peninsula of Florida,” Sally Bishop, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management, said as Hermine approached Thursday. Pinellas County is the most densely populated in the state, filled with at-risk properties and people. “When you’re talking about 600,000 people, that’s pretty staggering to have that many having to get out of the way of storm surge.

Storm surge is ocean water whipped by winds that causes widespread flooding. Bishop said many areas in Pinellas County are second only to New Orleans in terms of low land elevation and risk.

It would take a mighty wind to create its worst-case scenario, a Category 4 with gusts of up to 150 mph — larger than Katrina in New Orleans, to bring about the worst case scenario in the KCC report. Tampa and its surrounding area has been more fortunate than most Florida cities; a major storm hasn’t scored a direct hit since 1921. Hurricane Charley was headed there in 2004, Karen Clark & Co. noted, “but just before landfall made an unexpected turn to the south.”

A Category 3 or greater hurricane would wreak havoc similar to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. “You could very well see 25 feet of water where we are right now in downtown Tampa,” Brian LaMarre, a meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s local station, told the Tampa Bay Times.

“If we got a Cat 3 coming across Hillsborough Bay, my house is gone,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who lives on Davis Islands, said in that same report. “There will come a day when we will be hit. That is going to happen, I can promise you.”

 

Nothing, it seems, can protect the Florida coast from rising ocean waters driven by hurricane-force winds. The reason was spelled out in a 2010 report by the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council in Tallahassee. There are 1,200 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of bays, estuaries and coastal waters in a state where the highest point is about 400 feet above sea level.


A map projecting the path of Hermine. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

And it appears everyone wants to be near the water. “Most of Florida’s 18 million residents live less than 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico,” the council’s report said. “Three-fourths of Florida’s population resides in coastal counties that generate 79 percent of the state’s total annual economy.” The infrastructure that helps drive that economy is valued at about $2.5 trillion.

“Sea-level rise is not a science fiction scenario but a reality,” the report warned in a state where Gov. Rick Scott (R) banned the Department of Environmental Protection from using the term “climate change” in official state releases. “The question for Floridians is not whether they will be affected, but how much. … Some detrimental effects of sea-level rise are already well documented.”

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