No matter which path Hurricane Irma takes when it strikes Florida, analysts say the damage could be monumental — and reach hundreds of billions of dollars.
According to a report by the reinsurance firm Swiss Re published earlier this summer, Miami-Dade County has grown so much in the 25 years since Hurricane Andrew that if the same storm swept through today on an identical path, the insured losses would be somewhere between $50 billion and $60 billion. That’s even without factoring in the loss of revenue from taxes and diminished tourism. (In 1992, Andrew’s toll reached $26.5 billion).
But if Andrew had made landfall 20 miles north — directly over Miami, instead of its actual landing near Homestead — the insured losses could have been as high as $180 billion.
Megan Linkin, the natural hazards expert who co-authored the Swiss Re report, says these estimates can’t be extrapolated to Irma. Not only is this hurricane much larger and powerful than Andrew, but it is also approaching South Florida from a different direction on a different path, so the computer models don’t match.
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“That said, Florida has not experienced a major hurricane landfall in 12 years, since Wilma [in 2005],” Linkin said. “Before that, the frequency of major hurricane landfalls was lower than it had been in the early- and mid-20th century. During that time, the Miami real estate market exploded and a lot of people moved down there. We’re looking at a situation where all these chickens might be coming to roost — the consequence of the decisions to highly develop a hurricane-prone area.”
According to the 2016 U.S. Census, the population of Miami-Dade County has swelled by nearly 35 percent since Andrew, from 2 million to nearly 2.7 million, making Miami the eighth-most-populous and fourth-largest urban area in the U.S.
Building and construction codes and regulations have also been raised to withstand Andrew-force winds — and there’s been a lot of new construction. The current combined residential values of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties is nearly $660 billion, while commercial values near $550 billion, according to Swiss Re.
But not all of those properties are properly insured against the power of a storm as threatening as Irma.
“There’s no structure in Miami that’s built to withstand 185 mph winds,” said Keith Wolfe, president U.S. property and casualty for Swiss Re. “Nothing is designed for that, because it’s such an outlier event. But as we can see with Irma, it’s possible. All your windows will get blown out at 180 mph. And then all the water will come in, so even if you’re up in a condo on the 42nd floor, it’s going to be like you were on the ground floor.”
Although Irma’s record-setting high winds have been getting most of the attention, worries about storm-related flooding are increasing. Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst for the not-for-profit National Resources Defense Council, has compiled a list of the 1,578 severe repetitive loss properties in Florida reported to FEMA from 1978-2015. Of those, 121 are located in Miami-Dade, totaling nearly $30 million in damage claims.
According to a report by the Associated Press released Thursday, most residents in Florida flood zones are not properly insured.
Even worse, Moore believes the region’s construction boom in coastal areas such as Miami Beach since Wilma swept through in 2005 may result in more instances of flooding during Irma than anyone anticipates.
“Depending on where and when it hits, Irma is going to be one of the biggest storms the nation has ever faced, and it could be truly catastrophic for the city of Miami,” Moore said. “Everyone has known the possibility of an Irma existed. But I fear Florida has allowed development to occur without taking that possibility into account.”
Aside from flooding, Irma will be the biggest test yet of toughened building and construction standards after Andrew. On Tuesday, city of Miami officials issued a warning that tower cranes are built to withstand wind speeds of 145 mph — but may not hold up during a Category 5 hurricane the size of Irma.
“We don’t know what is going to happen, because it’s been so long since there’s been a real test,” said Peter Zalewski of the real estate website Cranespotters.com. “This is what Warren Buffett meant when he said ‘only when the tide goes out do you find out who’s been swimming naked.’ ”
Zalewski also warns that the high-end condo market stalled after hurricanes Jeanne, Wilma and Katrina blew through South Florida in 2004-05, briefly scaring off foreign buyers.
“After Irma, people who were thinking about living on the coast may decide to just come for a visit and rent at an Airbnb,” he said.
But others remain more bullish on the future of the South Florida real estate market, no matter how much mayhem Irma wreaks.
“We’re not alone in our exposure to catastrophes, whether it’s hurricanes or earthquakes or typhoons,” said Jay Parker, CEO of Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “Florida was historically known as the hurricane state: Now we’re just one of many states on the coastline exposed to them. Ultimately there may be people who throw up their hands and say ‘That’s it,’ and sell their home or condo. But I believe in the resiliency of our market.”