Protection Is a Team Effort
Floridians, don't let the current lack of hurricane activity lull you into a false sense of security. As a low-lying peninsula jutting out into the Caribbean Sea, Florida attracts hurricanes just as surely as a magnet attracts iron filings.
Once a major storm makes landfall, it tends to sweep across the state, leaving destruction in its wake. With hurricane season well under way, it's time to devote some attention to ways that Florida can make itself more resistant to a cycle of storm damage that won't ease any time soon.
Let's begin with the facts: During the past three decades, storms have become more destructive throughout Florida for one simple reason -- the state's population has grown. Indeed, it has tripled over 40 years. As people have moved near the coast they have both built in harm's way and destroyed the coastal wetlands that provide a natural buffer against hurricane-caused storm surge.
And hurricane activity has accelerated. The Earth appears to go through 30-year periods of heavy hurricane activity, and we're now in the midst of one that started in the 1990s. To make matters worse, many scientists believe that human-caused global climate change will increase hurricane frequency and intensity for years to come. Even if hurricane activity slows down and global climate change predictions fizzle, the sheer number of people living on or near the coast means that even minor storms will continue to do significant damage.
Making things better won't be easy. The state needs to get serious about fixing its insurance system and doing away with the combination of the Florida Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund that subsidize insurance rates for people living on the coast. State and federal governments should discourage continued destruction of coastal wetlands.
While risk-based insurance rates and increased environmental protection sound good in principle, they aren't always practical in the short term. Simply deregulating insurance rates tomorrow would force some people -- particularly senior citizens on fixed incomes -- to sell their houses at a loss. Coastal open space is good, but it's not fair to ask homeowners' to give up their houses to make more room for bird sanctuaries.
Thus, Floridians who want to remain living near the coast have to do more to make their homes hurricane resistant. Current building codes specify tough standards that help newer homes survive, but about 70 percent of homes don't meet them.
Homeowners who care about their own property should do what they can to reinforce it against hurricanes: roof tie-downs, storm-resistant windows and deep-rooted plantings pay for themselves through improved safety, increased property values and lower insurance rates.
For those who don't have the ability or money, government help can transition people away from bad building decisions that those same governments often encouraged in their pursuit of growth. The state's My Safe Florida Home Program, which Gov. Crist, inexplicably, decided not to fund in 2009, helped residents of modest means secure their homes against storms and deserves to have its funding restored. Individual cities, towns and private charities should also see what they can do to help residents secure their homes and reinforce public infrastructure against storms.
The federal government can also play a role. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has recently introduced some proposals to create a federal equivalent of the My Safe Florida Home Program. Through tax credits and means-tested assistance, Thompson's proposals would help people around the country make their homes more storm resistant.
As people have moved near the coast they have built in harm's way.
Since most research has found that a dollar spent on mitigation returns somewhere between $3 and $7 in long-term savings, investing in making properties more storm resistant will also save taxpayer money while facilitating a switch to risk-based insurance rates. The insurance-rate shift -- not the programs -- are most important.
Government, however, can only play a supporting role. Private investments, private insurers and individual homeowners' need to take the lead in helping Florida ride out the coming storms.