No, this isn’t a diatribe about another sports scandal at the University of Miami, although I’m not certain who is more professional, the Canes or the Dolphins. And can anyone tell me why the UM mascot is a duck? Some things just defy explanation.
Instead, this is about Florida’s most serious natural threat – tropical cyclones or hurricanes. With Irene bearing down on the southeast, I’m worried about a couple of issues.
First, we have a lot of new Floridians who have never experienced a hurricane. After getting blasted in 2004 and 2005, we haven’t seen a hint of a big storm since. And in those six years, Florida has continued to grow. The 2010 census lists our population at 18.8 million. In a couple of years, we’ll pass New York as the third most populous state. That means a whole lot of folks don’t understand the intensity of these storms and how to prepare for a big blow.
They don’t understand how to plan for an approaching hurricane – food; medications; cash; a full gas tank; batteries and a radio; food and water for three days; etc.
They don’t understand the counter-clockwise rotation means that the worst area of the storm is in the northeast quadrant. They don’t understand how you need to evacuate way ahead of time so you’re not caught in the mother-of-all traffic jams in deteriorating conditions. They don’t understand that you need a place to evacuate to and people who will take you in. They don’t understand that you might need to drive for 500 miles to find a vacant hotel room.
They don’t understand that the wind will destroy things but water kills. They don’t have a plan to take care of their pets. They don’t understand that once you evacuate, it may be weeks before you’re allowed to return to your home.
In short, they are green, and that is a dangerous thing on the peninsula of Florida during the second half of the year – the Atlantic hurricane season.
Second, a lot of real estate, particularly in coastal zones, is insured by the taxpayers of the state of Florida. After those two devastating years (in 2004, we were hit by five storms including three major hurricanes; four struck Florida the next year including two major storms), property insurance rates went through he roof. Homeowners complained to the politicians who were all too quick to put a band aid on the mess.
Led by newly elected Governor Charlie Crist and a compliant Legislature in 2006, the Florida CAT fund became the primary source of insurance and reinsurance in what was then a booming real estate market. Private insurers bailed out of the Florida market faster than illegals in an ICE raid. As we’re discovering with health insurance, private companies cannot compete with the government behemoth because politicians make sure that the government doesn’t charge market rates. Instead, government goes belly-up when the bill comes due.
The Legislature has been pecking away at this problem for the past three years, but I’m deathly worried that when (not if) we get smacked by a big storm, the resultant bill will devastate our state budget. Then watch our bond rating dive like opening day of scallop season.
Here in North Central Florida, it is easy to be complacent. Nowhere in the peninsula is there anyplace more protected. The shallow waters of the Big Bend are not conducive to attracting big storms. Ernest Page, who was quite a historian, once told me that the only storm that was still a hurricane (winds above 75 mph) when it arrived in our county was the 1935 hurricane that first devastated the Keys. If memory serves me correctly, that was the most powerful storm to strike the US mainland in the 20th Century.
But the damage from a major hurricane striking an urban area like the Gold Coast would affect us all in ways we cannot imagine. The people who live in these hurricane-vulnerable areas must pay the insurance tab to protect their property. The fact that vote-greedy politicians bought their support by buying down insurance rates betting the state wouldn’t get struck, at least on their watch, is just another example of political malfeasance.