Irma’s damage a reminder of Florida economy’s vulnerability

Florida’s economy has long thrived on one import above all: People.

Until Irma struck this month, the state was adding nearly 1,000 residents a day — 333,471 in the past year, akin to absorbing a city the size of St. Louis or Pittsburgh. Every jobseeker, retiree or new birth, along with billions spent by tourists, helped fuel Florida’s propulsive growth and economic gains.

Yet Hurricane Irma’s destructive floodwaters renewed fears about how to manage the state’s population boom as the risks of climate change intensify. Rising sea levels and spreading flood plains have magnified the vulnerabilities for the legions of people who continue to move to Florida and the state economy they have sustained.

Florida faces an urgent need to adapt to the environmental changes, said Jesse Keenan, a lecturer at Harvard University who researches the effects of rising sea levels on cities.

“A lot is going to change in the next 30 years — this is just the beginning,” Keenan said.

People might need to live further inland, Keenan said, and employers might have to relocate to higher ground, with the resulting competition between offices and housing driving up land prices. It would become harder to adequately insure houses built along canals. Traffic delays could worsen across parts of Florida as more roads flood. Developers might shift away from sprawling suburban tracts toward denser urban pockets that are better equipped to manage floods.

At the same time, the belief remains firm among some developers and economists that for all the threats from rising water levels, the state’s population influx will continue with scarcely any interruption. The allure of lower taxes and easier living, the thinking goes, should keep drawing a flow of residents and vacationers.

“Irma doesn’t change the fact that there is no state income tax,” said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness. “In a few months, when the first Alberta Clipper starts blowing down cold weather across the United States and it’s 80 degrees and sunny down here, the memories of Irma will be blown away.”

Certainly, the influx of people has been testament to that appeal. After slowing when the housing bubble burst in 2007, the population has marched steadily upward. The number of Floridians, now above 20 million, is projected to hit 24 million by 2030, with more than half the increase coming from retiring baby boomers. Many of them first experienced…

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