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.