Hurricane Irma, the monster storm that barreled up the Florida coast, sent millions fleeing its destruction and left millions of others without power. Before it diminishes, it could wreak more havoc. Officials estimate that at least six million have been ordered evacuated from Florida and parts of Georgia. Atlanta, for the first time in its history, faced a tropical storm warning.
Rescue crews are performing heroically, and risking their lives. But as a Department of Homeland Security adviser on the scene chillingly said to residents, “There will come a time when you’re on your own.”
The consensus among experts is that more harm, and the possible loss of life, is virtually certain. But how great Irma’s destruction might eventually be presents an interesting argument for how population growth often puts millions of people in harm’s way when natural disaster strikes.
In 1992, Category 5 Hurricane Andrew killed 65, leveled 63,000 homes, and left $26.5 billion in economic losses in its wake. But Hurricane Andrew hit a quarter of a century ago, and Florida’s population has boomed during those 25 years. More people means more real estate development, and more cars clogging the highways during mandatory evacuations, which ultimately translates into greater economic losses.
The New York Times, drawing from the reinsurance firm Swiss Re’s analysis, wrote that if a hurricane similar in size and power to Andrew, like Irma, struck the same Florida region, the catastrophic economic fallout could reach $100 billion, four times the 1992 devastation.
But $100 billion might one day seem like pocket change. In its 2016 estimate, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that across Texas, Florida and Louisiana inflation-adjusted hurricane losses could increase 40 percent from today’s total.
The first of the two-part explanation for the projected soaring costs is obvious. Central and South Florida have experienced dramatic population increases, and added more than six million residents since 1990. Developers have seized the opportunity to build pricey high-rise condos, luxury hotels and golf resorts on previously vacant land.
Megan Linkin, Swiss Re’s natural hazards expert, said that Florida’s population has “exploded” in the last 40 years, and pointed to images of Miami Beach in 1926 when the Great Miami Hurricane struck. Linkin compared it to today’s overdeveloped city, and called the city “almost unrecognizable.”
The second part of the two-part Florida population boom is less apparent. To be sure, snowbirds flock to Florida to take advantage of its balmy winter weather. But immigration is a significant population driver, too, as Migration Policy Institute statistics show. In 2015, Florida’s total immigrant population ranked fourth with 4.1 million, behind California, Texas and New York, but ahead of New Jersey. This accounts for 20 percent of the state’s population.