Old wisdom taught us to save for a rainy day. In other words, times might be good now, but they do not stay good forever, and it pays to be prepared.
Hurricanes are the ultimate rainy day. Younger people may not remember Hurricane Katrina, but it was an enormous disaster, hitting Louisiana’s Gulf Coast in 2005. The evacuation was haphazard, flooding was widespread, and the emergency response was slow, complicated by looting and gang violence in disorderly New Orleans.
Over 1,500 people died, and this included many elderly people living in decrepit homes in areas below sea level, vulnerable because of obsolete levees and pumping equipment. Failing to evacuate, they drowned in the attics of their homes, clawing at the roof to get out.
A few weeks later, Hurricane Rita was heading for Houston, where I was living at the time. Everyone was a little gun shy of hurricanes after Katrina, and a large number of Houstonians tried to leave town. Houston is America’s fourth largest city. Unsurprisingly, gas stations were soon empty, and traffic leaving Houston crawled to a standstill.
I spent 15 hours in the car and made it roughly to Conroe (20 miles north of Houston), when I decided to turn around. When the storm finally arrived, damage was minimal. The whole experience was a reminder that natural disasters are bad, but our attempts to avoid them may create problems of their own.
Katrina and its aftermath were all blamed on President Bush. Without looking it up, I couldn’t even remember the Louisiana governor’s name at the time, because Bush and FEMA were the focal point of the media and many locals’ frustration. Now, forgetting for a moment who is president, the media wants to focus its blame for Hurricane Ian on Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis. But, so far, he appears to be in the heart of it all, providing leadership and support to the people of the region.
The Katrina disaster was a combination of local mismanagement, widespread fatalism among people who had weathered previous storms, coupled with the unique intensity of Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans’ haphazard levee and canal network.
FEMA and Bush were not responsible for any of that.
Welcome to Florida!
Like Louisianans, Floridians are used to hurricanes. In fact, some do not take them seriously enough, riding it out on barrier islands or low-lying areas because past storms “didn’t create too many problems.” But these folks are a minority. Most Floridians stock up on supplies and have generators, fans, and other equipment—also based on past experiences with power outages. For Hurricane Ian, half the people I know ran from the coast to friends and family living further inland.
But this wisdom accumulated among Floridians after many years of experience. Since the 2020 COVID lockdowns, Florida has a great many newcomers who lack this experience. Not knowing what can happen, many of them have flocked to the beach communities. They are nice places to live, until they aren’t.
Having been through a few hurricanes, I would never live on one of the barrier islands’ beaches and think it is insane to do so. By contrast, I spoke to a newcomer who “evacuated” some of his family from a mobile home in the St. Petersburg area to an AirBnB on Clearwater Beach—basically the predicted ground zero for landfall at the time he made this choice.
Multiplied by many hundreds of thousands of newcomers, and you have a lot of bad planning and bad decision making, totally uninformed by experience.
Prices, Insurance, and Risk
The federal government has declined to issue new flood insurance to most coastal barrier island properties under the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act. It’s a sensible law, but people build anyway, and they self-insure. This means many face a catastrophic loss in the case of a flood-related loss.
The market provides important information through price signals. If a home is too expensive to insure, it may not be worth living in. The risk is too great. But people are irrationally optimistic about the odds of things happening to them. And they really love the beach.
Because of low rates of evacuation, the death toll from Hurricane Ian has been uncharacteristically high, far in excess of other storms, like Hurricane Irma, which ripped its way through West Florida in 2017. The delayed evacuation orders and direct impact on highly populated areas around Fort Myers are a big part of the reason.
There are non-sinister explanations for most of this. The storm looked like it was coming straight for Tampa until a day or two before it hit. Then it turned east and had a new landfall about 150 miles south. So, the people living in the Fort Myers, Venice, and Naples areas got late evacuation notices and didn’t have the time, money, or ability to evacuate. Many of the hotels and places they might have gone were already booked and occupied by people from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area who had evacuated a day or two earlier.
The Fort Myers area is retirement central, filled with flimsy but affordable manufactured homes, many in flood zones. People on oxygen, in wheelchairs, or living on Social Security found it particularly difficult to evacuate.
The whole situation is very sad and unfortunate.
Mother Nature and the Modern World
One small blessing, even with this storm’s exaggerated impact, is that natural disasters of all kinds are less damaging than they once were. Death tolls like those from the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (3000+), the Galveston 1900 Hurricane (6000+), or the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane (4,112) are unheard of today.
Contra the libertarians, certain state and local legislative innovations have much to do with this. Zoning laws, first-world building codes, public health infrastructure, better weather reporting, and coordinated emergency response protocols all contribute to this improvement. Even now, Florida highways are full of bucket trucks, construction equipment, and skilled workers heading to Southwest Florida to assist in the rescue and reconstruction efforts, all coordinated by FEMA and the government of Florida.
During our recent encounter with the COVID virus, experts suggested that we could avoid all trouble through “trusting the science.” Instead, COVID’s persistence in the face of lockdowns, masks, and vaccines showed us that sometimes we have to take the loss and be stoic about it, lest we do more damage in our efforts at mitigation.
Hurricanes have a similar quality. They also remind us that our technology, our plans, and our efforts must give way before the power of Mother Nature. She deserves respect, which we fail to bestow at our peril.