Twenty-five years ago this month, Hurricane Andrew unleashed its Category 5 wrath on South Florida, sending a catastrophic reminder about the dangers of living in the heart of “hurricane alley.”
But drive along any coastline in Florida today and you’ll find construction cranes as plentiful as palm trees as developers rush to build high-rises in the most beautiful, and vulnerable, corners of the state.
Florida has improved standards for new construction to prevent the level of damage wrought by hurricanes, but an Andrew-like storm hitting downtown Miami and its ever-growing collection of sparkling skyscrapers could exact a hefty price: $300 billion, according to one insurance underwriter.
“And that number doesn’t include loss of taxes or tourism,” said Monica Ningen, chief property underwriter for the U.S. and Canada for Swiss Re, one of the largest reinsurance companies in the world.
In the 25 years since Andrew made landfall on Aug. 24, 1992, nearly 1 in 10 homes built in the United States were built in Florida, according to an analysis of building permits conducted for USA TODAY by the real estate web site Trulia. That’s second only to Texas.
The trend is even more pronounced for larger condo buildings. Florida accounts for 11.5% of new residential buildings with at least five residences over the past 25 years, trailing only Texas’ 12.7%, according to the Trulia analysis.
“We’re like lemmings going to the sea, except that we build condos, hotels, and houses,” said Richard Olson, director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University.
The dangers of Florida’s post-Andrew growth is clearly illustrated in a report from Swiss Re that examined Florida’s vulnerability to hurricanes.
Andrew caused $24.5 billion in insured property damage when it hit the working class suburb of Homestead about 20 miles south of downtown Miami, becoming the most expensive catastrophe in U.S. history. Since then, Miami-Dade County’s population has increased by more than a third. Now, if a similar storm hit the same spot, Swiss Re estimates it would cause closer to $60 billion in insured damage.
High-rise condos could be Florida’s weak spot
Part of the reason for those massive numbers is the explosion of high-rise condos throughout the state.
Florida toughened up its building codes after Andrew and saw good results with the spate of four hurricanes that struck the state in 2004. But in 2005, Hurricane Wilma revealed a glaring weakness.
Wilma, as a Category 2 hurricane, was far weaker than Andrew when it crossed over Miami, but its 100 mph winds shattered windows throughout downtown. One reason: Wind speeds grow drastically the higher you go.
Wilma’s 75 mph winds on the ground grew to 115 mph on the 30th floor, according to a hurricane wind model created by Florida International University in Miami. No condos collapsed, but the window failures caused massive damage.
“The structure looks great from the outside, and yet, the building has to be gutted because of the water damage inside,” said Shahid Hamid, director of the Laboratory for Insurance, Financial and Economic Research at FIU.
Price of paradise
So with a catastrophic risk looming, why do Floridians continue to build such high structures right on the coast?
For developers, the answer is simple.
“Anybody that owns a piece of property should be able to do what they like with it, as long as they’re complying with the laws,” said Jeremy Stewart, a Crestview, Fla., developer and chairman of the Florida Home Builders Association.
But developers aren’t just interested in the principles of individual freedom or property rights, says Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It comes down to money, Fugate says.
With each new glass-covered skyscraper that goes up along Florida’s coasts, developers reap a windfall of profits. The money drives businesses and puts taxes into government coffers.
Real estate attorneys, realtors, agents, architects, and contractors all get a piece. Every new condo that goes up in Pensacola or Tampa or Jacksonville means more tax revenues for those city governments. Florida is one of seven states that doesn’t collect personal income tax, so real estate taxes and fees included in every home purchase are critical to keep the state’s finances afloat.
Fugate said that has created a “vicious cycle” of transactions that the state has grown to rely on.
“Our economy is building houses, apparently,” said Fugate, who lives in northern Florida and used to run the state’s emergency management division before heading up FEMA. “Our bias now seems to be to the benefit of the transaction, not the homeowner.”
Some city leaders say it’s not that nefarious. In Miami Beach, the tourist mecca that is at the front line of Florida’s battles against climate change, leaders say the tax revenues from new developments are the only way they can afford to make the long-term improvements to gird the barrier island from rising water.
The city is in the midst of a $500 million project to raise roads, raise seawalls and install 80 pumps to push out floods that occur even on sunny days.
New York and New Jersey received billions in federal funding following Superstorm Sandy, just as New Orleans did following Hurricane Katrina. But since a hurricane hasn’t hit Miami and Miami Beach directly in decades, they are left to improve their infrastructure mostly on their own.
“On the one hand, we have to be responsible with our development,” said Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales. “But on the other hand, we need that revenue. We’ve got to figure out how to pay for all that.”
Then there’s the way residents ponder the question. Ask Floridians why they’re willing to endure the threat of hurricanes and they’ll usually give some version of the same answer: They raise their arms and say, “Look around.”
Maria Lopez, 38, moved out of her home in Little Havana just outside downtown Miami 10 years ago as the rent increased and the neighborhood endured more and more flooding. Lopez said she never even considered leaving the city or the state, opting instead to find a home in nearby Liberty City that was elevated to avoid flooding and built to hurricane-proof building codes.
Lopez, a customs broker with two young sons, loves “the food, the culture, the climate.” But, she says, “You just have to know that a hurricane can hit.”
James Murley, the chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County, agreed, saying the dangers of hurricanes and sea level rise are simply the price of living in paradise, just as Californians are willing to deal with the occasional earthquake.
“You have to live with the risk,” he said. “Why are they still building in San Francisco? Why are they still building in Los Angeles? They’re on established fault lines. Communities that have a history, they’re going to grow one way or the other.”
Grow smarter or inland?
With no slowdown in sight, experts say Florida has two remaining choices: grow farther from the coast or grow smarter.
Jean-Pierre Bardet, dean of the college of engineering at the University of Miami, said the only way that developers will stop building skyscrapers right along the water will come down to money.
Florida’s building codes have made construction more expensive over the years. And some developers have gone beyond those codes to create safer, and costlier, buildings.
For example, many new high-rises in Florida don’t have a street-level entrance for pedestrians. They begin with several floors of parking on the ground floors, then a lobby higher up, topped off by apartments or offices. That means only cars parked at those levels will be damaged if a hurricane pushes in storm surge or rising sea levels create more regular flooding.
Those kinds of measures are expensive, though, and Bardet said their prices will only increase as the projects become harder to engineer.
“The economic consideration will be what puts the brakes on this expansion,” he said.
Some cities and counties, including St. Petersburg, Palm Beach County and Miami, are taking a “smart growth” approach by hiring “resilience officers” or “sustainability managers” who devise growth plans that account for the potential environmental impacts of climate change.
James Cloar, an urban development consultant and former chairman of the Urban Land Institute Tampa Bay, said the people in those positions need broad power to control how a city grows.
“These offices are being created with good intentions, but I don’t think universally they’re at the level that they need to be,” he said.
Jane Gilbert, who became the city of Miami’s first chief resilience officer in 2016, said it’s been tough to persuade everyone of the value of such planning, but some government officials and private developers do see a long-term benefit.
“Luckily we have some progressively-minded developers, architects and land-use attorneys that get it,” she said. “(They understand) that if we don’t start building with a long term view, their investments are at risk.”
Source: USA Today