Why "hurricane amnesia" is a big risk this year

June starts the six-month hurricane season, and after several years of mild weather on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, experts are sounding the klaxon. It might be time to batten down the hatches.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting a better-than-average likelihood of four to eight hurricanes with winds of 74 miles per hour, with one to four of them sustaining 111 miles per hour or more.

NOAA calls this a "near-normal" season, but after so many years of little or no storm damage up and down the East and Gulf coasts, it could hit residents very hard from Texas all the way up to Maine.

"We call it 'hurricane amnesia,'" said Tom Jeffrey, hazard-risk scientist with CoreLogic, an Irvine, California-based data and analytics firm. "We can't expect this to continue."

CoreLogic's Storm Surge Report suggests that more than 6.8 million homes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at risk of inundation if a hurricane hits, with the total cost of reconstruction pegged at $1.5 trillion. The survey includes both mobile and manufactured homes, as well as cabins and traditional housing.

But this is a worst-case scenario. "No single storm will do that," said Jeffrey, and his model assumes that every house would have to be rebuilt from the ground up, which is unlikely.

It also offers some perspective on who's likely to be hurt -- and how much -- if the U.S. doesn't get another painless year. As expected, Florida, with the longest coastline, has more homes at risk than any other state, a total of 2.7 million. Louisiana is second, and Texas is third. A surprising fourth and fifth, however, are New Jersey and New York, which were caught off-guard by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Bear in mind that no hurricane, whatever its size, is going to hit the whole East or Gulf coast. However, major storms have ravaged entire metro areas in the past. The CoreLogic report also provides the "risk" for these areas, giving the Miami area, which includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, top billing. New York City gets second place. All told, Florida towns like Bradenton and Naples are in six of the top 15 spots.

Recent census data shows that the vulnerable coastal population has grown by nearly half in the last 40 years. "When you are located on a coast, you are always at risk," said Jeffrey, "so be aware."

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CoreLogic

And insurers want you to remember this, too. "Flood insurance policies have plunged by nearly 10 percent since 2009, even as coastal development surges and sea levels rise," said spokesperson Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute, which represents most property-casualty insurers. She added that if a storm like "The Great Miami Hurricane" of 1926 hit the city again by 2020, it could be a $500 billion catastrophe all by itself.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides flood insurance for about 5.5 million homes, but its maps are far from perfect, according to CoreLogic.

"Many properties located outside designated FEMA flood zones are still at risk," the CoreLogic report warned. That's because FEMA doesn't differentiate on the basis of a storm's severity. Many homeowners in the interior of Mississippi and elsewhere found this out the hard way after Hurricane Katrina flooded them out in 2005.

So is there any good news in all this? By using more accurate data than previous surveys and by using a 10-meter elevation grid rather than the previous 30-meters, the analytics firm discovered that while the overall number of homes at risk of storm surge -- and the cost to rebuild them -- continues to go up, there has been a decrease in the most extreme and dangerous category of low-lying homes.

In other words, if you're moving to the coast, seek the higher ground.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.