Florida Dodges the Hurricane Dorian Bullet
September 5, 2019 Revised September 14, 2019
Following a ten-year hurricane-free period from 2006 to 2015, Florida has been really hammered in the last few years years. On September 10, 2017 Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, and ripped right up the peninsula, damaging $50 billion in property as it went. On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 monster, roared into the Florida Panhandle, flattening the small town of Mexico Beach.
In recent days, Hurricane Dorian seemed to be on a collision course with Florida, headed towards the heavily populated Miami metropolitan area. However, even though Dorian strengthened to a Category 5, devasting the northern Bahama islands, with 1,300 missing and the dead reported at 50 and rising, before it slowed and weakened, it took a welcome, but anticipated, turn, spinning up the Florida east coast offshore, instead of making landfall. Nevertheless, en route it passed close enough to the coast to project tropical storm winds and tidal surges on the coast and contiguous areas. But like Hurricane Matthew, which followed a similar path in 2016, it will probably not even be officially counted as a Florida hurricane by the NOAA.
Floridians have gotten a bit jaundiced about hurricanes. This is understandable because the number of hurricane watches exceeds the number of hurricanes hitting the state. And Floridians have come to count on their State and local governments to competently handle any needed hurricane relief and recovery activities. Emergency procedures have been put in place to ensure everybody stays safe and to assist those in need. These procedures and preparations have been tested and worked well in the past. Most people did stock up on needed supplies of food, water, fuel and other things in preparation for Dorian. However, it does appear that some complaisance had set in, and that many, even on coastal barrier islands, did not observe mandatory evacuation orders, potentially endangering themselves and first responders. Fortunately, these islands were not hard enough hit to cause major problems.
The round-the-clock TV coverage of hurricanes on national television does much to create the impression of pending doom. Floridians receive many funereal calls and messages from up north from relatives and friends who urge us to stay safe.
It may surprise some to hear that the Hurricane Season in recent years has been nothing unusual from a longer-term perspective (even counting Dorian as a Florida hurricane) (Appendix and Chart 1). Florida has always had a hurricane every year or two. In fact, the Government has officially recorded 70 since it started keeping count in 1872 (69 not counting Dorian).
The last decade has been pretty much par for the course, although the 1990s and 2000s were worse than average (this assumes that we won't get any more than one or two in the remaining months of the hurricane season, which would make for an uncharacteristically bad year). The worst decades were the 1920s, 1940s, and the 1960s. And the hurricanes have not gotten more intense on average on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which runs from Category 1 to 5 (Chart 2).
So, if you're thinking of moving to Florida, don't be frightened away by all the scary news of recent hurricanes. For the present, nothing much is different than usual down here. Hurricanes come and go, usually sparing large parts of the state. It may seem surreal to non-Floridians, but, while Dorian was whipping up hurricane force winds on the Atlantic coast and everybody was battened down, other Sunshine-staters were out sailing on the Gulf side.
The longer-term prospects, however, are more uncertain. Many doomsayers are predicting that hurricanes will increase in frequency and intensity because of global warming. Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez both jumped on the opportunity to push their Green New Deal and tweeted that Dorian was the result of climate change. On the other hand, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had issued a more cautious warning in its report Global Warming and Hurricanes (August 15, 2019). By late in the 21st century, the NOAA expects that, while the frequency of tropical storms will not necessarily increase due to global warming: storms will become more intense; the proportion of storms reaching the "very intense" level (Cat 4 and 5) will probably rise; rainfall associated with tropical storms will increase; and hurricanes will cause more coastal flooding. But that is decades in the future, not right now.
In the meantime, Floridians are used to coping with hurricanes. We consider them to be an unavoidable cost of living in a semitropical paradise. If the hurricanes continue as in the past, we will be able to survive and prosper. If they worsen, as we fear they might, we will have to implement costly climate change adaptations to alleviate the effects of temperature increases and sea level rises on the severity of storms. Building codes will have to be tightened and construction will have to be made more hurricane-proof than ever. And defenses will have to be built to protect some vulnerable coastal areas from tidal surges and flooding. Unfortunately, international efforts to eliminate Greenhouse Gas Emissions, as desirable as they may be, won't do much to directly protect us from hurricanes.
This article explores and updates themes from Florida Dreams: All About the Amazing Rise of the Sunshine Mega-State (Amazon, 2019).
Florida Dreams is available from Amazon.com.