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Location: Florida
In storm path: Coastal boom
Hurricanes pose more of a threat than they did 30 years ago because of
population growth.


By Warren Richey | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - As coastal residents from New Orleans to the
Florida panhandle deal with the force of hurricane Ivan, experts say the
unfolding drama illustrates a paradox in the nation's approach to
hurricane protection.

While the ability to predict the path of hurricanes has greatly improved
in recent decades, efforts to reduce the amount of destruction have not
kept pace with forecasting advances. The result: Seaside residents are
privy to the earliest and most accurate hurricane warnings ever, yet
America's Southern shoreline has never been more vulnerable to
large-scale storms.

At the same time, many of these coastal areas have more than doubled in
population since the 1970s - and now, some 30 years later, the potential
level of destruction could be up to five times higher. "We have made
great strides in forecasting, but it has been outweighed by the large
influx of population," says Stephen Leatherman, director of the
International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International
University in Miami.

Decades of explosive development on barrier islands and other coastal
areas, and a lack of significant attention to the destructive force of
hurricanes by residents and builders, have guaranteed that storm damage
along the US coast from North Carolina to Texas is becoming increasingly
costly, experts say.

With the US in the midst of one of the most active hurricane seasons in
generations, these costs are suddenly apparent. In addition to the
arrival of hurricane Ivan on the Gulf Coast, two other hurricanes,
Charley and Frances, struck Florida within the past month. A fourth
storm, Jeanne, could threaten Florida next week.

One major benefit of better hurricane forecasts is a greatly improved
ability to evacuate the large numbers of residents now living in the
most dangerous areas. In addition, analysts say officials are becoming
highly skilled at responding to large-scale hurricane-related disasters.

But many experts say if current population trends continue, more must be
done to prevent hurricane damage before storms strike. "People are more
inclined to move to the most disaster-prone areas of the country -
Florida, Texas, and California," says Bob Hartwig, chief economist with
the Insurance Information Institute in New York. "Those states that have
the greatest appeal for quality of life also happen to be the most
dangerous to live in.
But people don't think about that when they move there."

Mr. Hartwig says the area now being affected by hurricane Ivan was
struck by hurricane Camille in 1969. That Category 5 storm, with wind
gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour and a 22-foot tidal surge, virtually
leveled the Mississippi town of Pass Christian. The violent landfall
left more than 140 dead. "This was the most intense storm to ever hit
the US mainland," he says. "It produced, at the time, $225 million in
insured losses, which is
$1.1 billion in current dollars."

Hartwig adds, "The same storm today would do four to five times as much
damage as an equivalent storm 35 years ago."

Although it remains the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland,
Camille isn't even listed among the 10 most costly hurricanes. At the
top of the list is hurricane Andrew, which slammed ashore in 1992 south
of Miami and then hit Louisiana and Mississippi, causing $15.5 billion
in insured losses.
The second most costly hurricane is Charley, which hit southwestern
Florida roughly a month ago. Insured losses are estimated at $6.8
billion.

"Even a tropical storm that makes landfall is a billion-dollar event,"
says Dr. Leatherman. The average hurricane landfall in the US now costs
$5 billion. "I don't think this is sustainable over the long term," he
says.

Peter Dailey is manager of the atmospheric science department at AIR
Worldwide Corp. in Boston, which conducts risk forecasting for insurance
companies. He says the American coast has become so developed that there
are few, if any, areas of undeveloped coastline large enough to take a
direct hit from a hurricane without causing major insured losses.

"It is unlikely that a storm of [Ivan's] size and intensity can sneak
through the US coastline," he says.

After hurricane Andrew, many experts advocated upgrading building codes.
In south Florida, where residents endured the ordeal directly, local
authorities adopted the most stringent building code in the country -
requiring that all new construction be able to stand up to
145-mile-per-hour winds, the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. In
contrast, the rest of Florida and much of the rest of the US coast still
have building codes geared toward 100-mile-per-hour winds.

Some analysts are hopeful that the current active hurricane season will
spark a regionwide approach to adopting stronger hurricane protection
measures. Such measures could include writing tougher and more uniform
building codes, protecting power lines from high winds by burying them,
and creating greater incentives for homeowners to purchase storm
shutters by offering more generous insurance discounts or tax breaks.

Leatherman says he is hopeful that the large number of Florida and Gulf
coast residents who have now endured a hurricane may trigger a broader
impact. "It could change the way we think about hurricanes, and
hopefully if we change our thinking we are going to get better prepared
for them," he says.

Hartwig isn't as optimistic. He says once the hurricane season ends,
coastal residents will revert back into what Florida Gov. Jeb Bush calls
"hurricane amnesia."

"If left to their own devices, people generally will not pay the extra
money [to strengthen their homes against hurricanes]," Hartwig says.
"They believe it won't happen to them."

He says another factor is the influx of new residents who are unaware of
the danger of hurricanes. "About 1 in 4 people living in Florida today
were not there in 1992 [when hurricane Andrew hit]," he says.

Copyright 2004 The Christian Science Monitor

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