Newly built dream homes and harm's way

Watching Topical Storm Faye sweep through Florida, I'm reminded of HGTV's Dream Home 2008 grand prize.

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    Weather satellite image of Tropical Storm Faye over Florida on Aug. 20, 2008.
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Tropical Storm Faye and the Home and Garden channel may seem like strange bedfellows. But watching Faye hit the Florida Keys, drench the heart of the state, swing briefly out over the state's northeast coast, then hang a hard left and head west toward the Florida Panhandle, I'm reminded of the cable network's Dream Home 2008 grand prize. It speaks volumes about the challenges society faces if it hopes to reduce its vulnerability to natural hazards.

One February weekend, I walked by the television as HGTV made a pitch for its Dream Home 2008 sweepstakes. The dream spot? Islamorada, Fla. It’s about halfway down the chain of coral islets that end in Key West. The prize was a tidy two-story house that faces the ocean — with landscaping that just dares a hurricane storm surge to come roaring up to the patio. (We'll save a discussion on the value of mangroves as marine surge protectors for another day.)

Ironically, several days later, I came across a fresh study by Roger Pielke Jr. and colleagues on hurricane damage in the United States. It appeared in the February issue of Natural Hazards Review — a publication not for the faint of heart. Dr. Pielke's been looking at this issue at least since 1998. His data-driven theme has been pretty consistent: To date, rising trends in damage costs from hurricanes and tropical storms hitting the US have far more to do with population growth along storm-prone coasts than with any trends in the number, strength, or duration of the storms themselves. In other words: The problem is where we're building homes, not a change in climate. Pielke’s latest study extends his roster of storms, beginning in 1900, to include the 2005 season and its infamous Hurricane Katrina.

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Leafing through the study, I noted that economic losses for each hurricane season since 1900 (in 2005 dollars) appear as mere blips through the mid-1950s. They inch up a bit and hold relatively steady, then explode between 1990 and 2005. But is that due to rising population and wealth, or some climate-related trend? So Roger’s group asked: What would the damage costs look like if we superimposed today’s levels of wealth and development on yesterday’s storms? That changed the damage picture quite a bit. The 2005 season, as disastrous as it was, takes a back seat to 1926, when a powerful hurricane hit Miami. Adjusted for today’s economic and population conditions, the ‘26 storm would have cost the country $157 billion compared with $81 billion for Katrina.

The team’s bottom line after 14 pages, lots of graphics, and a couple of equations: The dollar value of losses are doubling every 10 years. Unless something is done to curb population growth and the rising concentration of big-bucks homes, condos, and office buildings along the coasts, losses could top $500 billion by 2020 just from growth alone. And might we be experiencing bigger storms by then, given climate change? And that's just in the US.

Kerry Emanuel, who studies tropical cyclones at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls trends in the US “our lemming-like march to the sea.” He and a short list of other top experts take a dim view of state and federal insurance and disaster policies that have a well-meaning purpose, but in the end subsidize what they see as unwise behavior. They issued a statement in July 2006 that neatly sums up their view.

Which brings me back to Dream House 2008. To be sure, few places on Earth are without their natural hazards. It’s the price we pay for living on a geologically active planet. And based on the description of the house, it's stoutly built. But if you have to sink pillars seven feet into the ground to make sure the house doesn’t blow or wash away, and install an emergency generator, perhaps you’re putting down roots in an undoubtedly beautiful — but wrong — spot.

Note: Eoin O'Carroll is on vacation. He will return Sept. 2

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