Population growth makes hurricanes more expensive

The Atlantic hurricane season ended this week as one of the most destructive on record. Hurricane Ian, which struck the southeastern United States in September, was the worst storm of the season and one of the country’s deadliest hurricanes in decades. It was also one of the most expensive in American history and caused an estimated $67 billion for privately insured property damage in five federal states.

Ian is part of a trend. Hurricanes are typically among the most damaging forms of extreme weather, with costs escalating sharply. Hurricanes that caused more than $1 billion in damage have roughly doubled since the 1980s. Over the same period, the inflation-adjusted total damage cost has increased by a much larger amount—more than 11 times:

Climate change has increased the likelihood of severe cyclones and, in some cases, their destructive power. But experts say there’s a bigger culprit behind the rising cost of damage: Americans flocking to coastal areas. This migration has increased the number of homes, businesses and other buildings at risk.

As our colleague in charge of climate, Christopher Flavelle, put it, “More powerful storms plus more development in coastal areas means more damage.” Today’s newsletter will focus on how the development part of this equation contributes to costly hurricanes.

Stephen Strader, who studies disaster geography at Villanova University, calls the increasing development in hurricane-prone areas the “expanding direct hit effect.” The larger the target – the number of people, homes and businesses in an at-risk area – the greater the likelihood that storms will cause costly damage. “There’s more things in the path of these hurricanes than ever before,” he said.

Think how many homes there are in Southwest Florida, where Hurricane Ian made landfall this year. These maps show the increase in housing density with increasing population between 1980 and 2020:

The Houston area shows a similar trend. Almost 1.3 million homes were added in the region between 1980 and 2020, as these maps show:

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey lingered over the Houston area for days, dropping more than 50 inches of rain in some places. The storm finally cost an estimated $149 billion — more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than any other hurricane since 1980 except Katrina in 2005.

This continued property development in the parts of the US most at risk from hurricane damage has also created additional risk by destroying the natural barriers that would otherwise help protect coastal areas from the storms. In Florida, “hardened” waterfront properties have replaced “spongy” wetlands and mangroves that were better at absorbing storm surges and rainfall, like Strader has explained.

Solving the problem of billion-dollar extreme weather events would require addressing both parts of Christopher’s storm damage equation. Reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming could reduce the likelihood of severe hurricanes and other costly climate-related disasters such as wildfires and droughts.

According to experts, one way to reduce property damage is to tighten building codes. Florida did so after Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc in 1992, requiring new structures to be built to better withstand strong winds. Infrastructure improvements — like levees to block storm surges or pumps to drain rainwater faster — could also help against hurricanes, but only to a limited extent.

Some experts have proposed a controversial goal: getting people to live elsewhere. The most aggressive attempt to persuade Americans to abandon hurricane-prone areas could be a new program that rates federal flood insurance according to climate risk, dramatically increasing the cost to people living in vulnerable locations.

But moving is a tough sell. Americans have flocked to Florida’s scenic coastline despite the risks. “People like to live in a nice place,” said Christopher.

There are also political challenges. Florida’s cities and towns rely heavily on property tax revenues, causing state and local officials to be reluctant to reduce density or encourage resettlement. They can also rely on the federal government to fund recovery efforts, giving them less incentive to mitigate future damage.

“There is a growing awareness that the current system, which basically allows and subsidizes construction in risk areas, no longer makes sense,” said Christopher. “However, the government is still struggling to translate that focus into policy changes that will make a big difference.”

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https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/02/briefing/why-hurricanes-cost-more.html Population growth makes hurricanes more expensive


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