Behind spiraling hurricane costs, human activity

Worldwide warming is raising water levels on the coasts and inland, and various studies blame it for some of the outlandish rain totals reported recently.

As for its effect on hurricane intensity, that remains an intensive research pursuit. The World Meteorological Organization has said that overall storm intensities could increase by 10 percent by century’s end but that the numbers of storms would remain the same or even drop.

What is certain is that even if the world stops warming tomorrow, hurricane damages will continue to spiral upward like winds around an eyewall.

The human signature in all this is unmistakable: Storms have not deterred development in hurricane-vulnerable areas.

The roles of federally back flood insurance and the availability of disaster aid are arguable; the trend is not. People want to live and own property near the water, notwithstanding what Villanova University professor Stephen Strader calls “disaster amnesia.”

According to data tabulated by ICAT, a catastrophe modeling concern, in raw dollars the total for tropical-storm related damages since an active hurricane period began in 1995 is astonishing – more than quadruple the combined total of all the damages in the previous 95 years.

But more is in the way than ever before; AIR Worldwide estimates that $13 trillion worth of insured property now is situated in the nation’s coastal counties.

Yet, as horrific as this season has been, using a measure that takes into account increases in property and personal wealth and inflation, this 23-year period is unlikely to be the costliest such era on record.

Using so-called normalized values, the ICAT numbers purport to address the question: How much would a given storm cost if it hit today?

For example, in the ICAT table the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, caused $76 million damages in raw, 1926 dollars.

Adjusted for inflation, that come to about $10 billion, adding that to current values for property and personal wealth, the “normalized” becomes $213.7 billion. So, even adjusting for inflation, that would be a 20-fold increase.

At more than $285 billion, 1926 is the costliest year in the ICAT normalized dataset. The year of Katrina, 2005, is a distant second, with about half that amount.

It will be some months before all the bills are computed for this season. At the very least it would appear to have a strong chance of moving into second place.

As for the 23-year totals, the 1926-through-1948 period appears safe at $555.3 billion.

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