Why Hurricane Irma Could Hurt, a Lot: Much Lies in Harm’s Way

WASHINGTON — The last time a Category 5 hurricane ripped through Florida, it was so destructive that meteorologists retired its name forever. That storm, Hurricane Andrew, made landfall southwest of Miami in 1992, killing 65 people, destroying 63,000 homes and inflicting $26.5 billion in economic losses.

But if a similar-sized hurricane were to strike Florida today in the same spot, it would be far more catastrophic — causing up to $100 billion in damage, according to a recent analysis by Swiss Re, the reinsurance firm. That’s even after accounting for the fact that South Florida has strengthened its building codes since Andrew.

The reason is simple: Central and South Florida have grown at a breathtaking pace since 1990, adding more than 6 million people. Glittering high-rises and condominiums keep sprouting up along Miami Beach and other coastal areas. A lot more valuable property now sits in harm’s way.

With Hurricane Irma — currently a Category 5 storm and one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic — possibly set to pummel Florida this weekend, the state is confronting the fact that rapid development has made its coastline far more vulnerable to hurricane damage than it used to be.

“Florida has exploded in the last 40 years,” said Megan Linkin, a natural hazards expert at Swiss Re. “If you look at images of Miami Beach from 1926” — when the Great Miami Hurricane, a Category 4 storm, devastated the city with a direct hit — “it’s almost unrecognizable today.”

Why Hurricanes Keep Getting Costlier

A similar dynamic is playing out across the United States, from Florida to Louisiana to Texas. In 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that hurricanes currently cause about $28 billion, on average, in annual damage nationwide. But those costs are projected to rise 40 percent between now and 2075, after adjusting for inflation.

Nearly half of that projected increase, the C.B.O. said, is because global warming and sea-level rise are expected to make hurricanes and storm surges more severe, though the exact effects are still a source of debate among scientists.

Photo

Devastation from Hurricane Andrew at a trailer park near Homestead, Fla., in 1994, more than two years after the storm struck.

Credit
Keith Meyers/The New York Times

But half of the expected rise in hurricane costs is the result of expected…

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