Risk study: Florida tops nation in potential losses from storm surge

An aerial shot after Hurricane Frances in 2004 shows a boat and debris in a street east of Fort Pierce.
An aerial shot after Hurricane Frances in 2004 shows a boat and debris in a street east of Fort Pierce. Miami Herald

Florida has more homes at risk from the devastating damage of hurricane-powered storm surges than any other state, according to a new study by CoreLogic, a California-based real estate information firm.

While the designation will come as no surprise to anyone living smack in the path of hurricane alley, the numbers reported by CoreLogic are sobering. More than 2.5 million homes in the state are at risk for some kind of damage from storm surge, according to the study. Rebuilding costs statewide from an extreme worst-case surge could amount to $491 billion — more than the gross domestic products of Austria, Chile, Venezuela or a dozen other countries.

In the tri-county area between Miami and West Palm Beach, CoreLogic found more than a half million homes are at risk. The company estimated rebuilding costs for a worst-case flooding from storm surge at $105 billion.

The numbers, said Tom Jeffery, CoreLogic’s senior hazard-risk scientist, show that the number of storms each year is “less important than the location of where the next hurricane will come ashore.”

In recent years, storm surge has gained attention as a lethal threat from hurricanes in the wake of Katrina and Sandy, deadly storms that rank among the nation’s costliest. In 2005, Katrina flooded New Orleans when the Mississippi River breached crumbling and broken levees to fill the bowl-shaped city, causing about $108 billion in damage. More than 1,800 people were killed.

In 2012, Sandy hit New York City, sending a storm surge nearly 14 feet high into Battery Park. Damage has been estimated at $68 billion.

Last year, the National Hurricane Center launched storm surge warning maps that will let the public plug in locations to see what threat storm surge poses. The center also plans to begin issuing warnings based on those forecasts.

“You can’t hide from a storm surge,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said this week. “You have to evacuate.”

To come up with its estimate for property value, CoreLogic used a proprietary methodology that calculates the cost to rebuild property deemed a total loss. This estimate should not be confused with market values or new construction cost estimates, the firm said. The cost also factors in geographic differences in construction costs. Land values are not included in the estimates.

The firm then broke down houses into five risk categories between extreme and low — with extreme representing the surge risk posed by all hurricanes, no matter the strength. Nearly the entire coastline between the three counties, and most of Miami-Dade County’s barrier islands, were at extreme risk. Much of southern Miami-Dade County is considered at high to extreme risk, according to its calculations.