March 6, 2000
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Amid a fury of construction, a grace of hurricane quiet

Second of six parts

By Gilbert M. Gaul
and Anthony R. Wood

Related material:
* Graphics and the series so far

At daybreak, the six hours of hell wrought by the most powerful hurricane ever to hit Miami subsided. The winds had wailed as loudly as the frantic rescue sirens that filled the streets.

Stunned residents and visitors ventured from their houses and hotels to watch the first light of day break upon the devastated landscape. Some knelt to kiss the earth.

Then, suddenly, the gales howled anew, this time up to 150 m.p.h. People who had been lured outside were defenseless against hurtling debris. "The air was streaked with garbage cans, automobile tops, doghouses, furniture," wrote a storm survivor, L.F. Reardon.

The storm would leave 372 people dead, more than 6,000 injured, and $1.6 billion in damage in today's dollars.

It has been more than 73 years since Miami was hit dead-on by a Category 4 hurricane like the one that struck that morning of Sept. 18, 1926. Experts now warn that Miami, having narrowly escaped the worst of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Floyd in September, is long overdue for another catastrophic storm.

When it comes, it won't be a $1.6 billion-dollar storm. If that 1926 hurricane were to strike today, the bill would be more than $80 billion, researchers calculate.

In fact, hurricane specialists believe that any year now, the United States will be blindsided by a $100 billion hurricane - one that would rock the insurance industry and sock taxpayers with a staggering repair bill.

Statistically, a hurricane catastrophe is most likely to strike South Florida, where million-dollar high-rises, luxury hotels, and pricey vacation homes line the coast. But it could be almost anywhere along the built-out Gulf and Atlantic Coasts - perhaps New Orleans, or Galveston, Texas.

The threat has little to do with global warming. It has everything to do with human development. A largely unregulated, unplanned building boom has transformed the nation's coasts, placing nearly $2 trillion worth of property in harm's way.

During the last 50 years, this unprecedented period of building has paralleled an era of hurricane quiet.

Now, hurricane experts warn, the party is over. A new era of dangerous land-falling hurricanes is under way, an era that could last until 2020 or longer.

"Our memories are so short," said Jerry Jarrell, who just retired as director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "We say it ain't going to happen again. Well, it's happening again."

The hurricane next time

For 40 years, William M. Gray of Colorado State University has studied tropical cyclones. And for 16 years, with impressive results, he has been making long-range forecasts of the numbers of hurricanes that will form in the Atlantic and the Gulf.

Everything he sees tells him that the United States has entered a period of costly hurricanes. The kind that pack tornado-level winds and haul walls of water across whole towns. The kind that occurred in 1926, and several times in the '40s and '50s.

A convergence of data and common sense tells Gray, an atmospheric scientist, that nowhere in the country is the potential more frightening than in South Florida.

To illustrate, he points to two maps of hurricane tracks in Florida. The first, sparsely marked, shows storms prior to 1995. "This 25-year period, nothing," he says. "This is the period when people buy homes and develop."

Then he points to the second map, one that looks to be covered with the mad scribblings of a 2-year-old. "Those are the tracks of the '40s and '50s. Now what happens when we go back to this?" he asks.

We're about to find out, Gray believes.

He is holding a terrifying portrait of high hurricane season in Florida. It is a vision of palm trees bent to the ground, of flying wood and metal, of wildly blowing curtains of water and debris, of mobile homes and sailboats tossed like footballs, of ambulances and tent cities and contaminated water.

But at this moment, from his office in the foothills of the Rockies, it is a vision that only this gangling man in the argyle sweater can see.

That vision might seem far-fetched to many people in Florida, which has had an extraordinary run of luck over the last three decades. From 1941 to 1950, 20 land-falling hurricanes hit Florida, six of them major, packing winds from 111 to 150 m.p.h. From 1971 to the present, a mere six hurricanes, only one of them major, made landfall there.

The residents of Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and the Keys have been particularly blessed. Southeastern Florida was assaulted by 11 intense hurricanes from 1900 to 1960, but only one, Andrew, in the last 39 years.

The intense hurricanes are the important ones, causing more than half of all private insured losses nationwide.

Andrew: Not the Big One

A decade ago, insurance industry officials estimated that in a worst-case scenario, a hurricane would leave Florida with a $7 billion bill.

They were wrong. And in 1992 they would find out how wrong. At 5:05 a.m. on Aug. 24 that year, Andrew buzz-sawed across South Florida, near Homestead. More than 135,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, and more than 250,000 people were left homeless.

The price tag was staggering: More than $30 billion, including $20 billion in insured losses, the most expensive hurricane on record.

Yet for all the trauma, Andrew was not the Big One. Not even close.

In geographic coverage, Andrew was actually a small storm. The band of maximum winds was only about nine miles wide, roughly the distance from Philadelphia International Airport to City Hall.

In most hurricanes, the storm surge - the wall of water dragged ashore - does most of the damage. But Andrew moved so quickly that flooding was negligible in South Florida.

More significant, Andrew followed a relatively benign path.

Andrew's track minimized the damage to Dade County, the government said in its post-storm report. Had the eye of the storm crossed the coast just 10 miles north, it would have devastated downtown Miami, probably causing greater loss of life and more than $50 billion in insured losses.

A combustible additive

Hurricanes have been churning in the Atlantic Basin and the Gulf of Mexico for thousands of years. Only in modern times have the storms interacted with a combustible additive: human development.

Consider that Florida has added two-thirds of its population - more than 10 million people - since 1950.

One indicator of the change in building levels came courtesy of Hurricane Opal, a Category 3 hurricane that made landfall in the Florida Panhandle in October 1995.

The flood damage was greater than the combined total of damage from all coastal storms in the state in the previous 20 years - $400 million.

Ironically, Opal unleashed a frenzy of speculation, driving up property values. "We started getting calls from `bottom fishers,'" recalled Ira Mae Hewatt, a Realtor. Prices jumped 20 percent in the first six months after Opal.

Beachfront lots that sold for $250,000 before Opal now garner $400,000 or more. A drive along the 2.5-mile Gulf Boulevard reveals towering condominiums fetching up to $1 million per unit and pricey new resorts with marble porticos and sleek pools - and few empty lots.

"What have we learned after Opal?" asked county administrator Hunter Walker. "I don't think we learned anything."

In 1950, the year the Fort Lauderdale region was leveled by a Category 4 hurricane that produced a record 155-m.p.h. wind, Broward County had a population of 83,933. Today, it is close to 1.5 million. In 1950, Dade County's population was less than 500,000. Today it is more than two million. Fewer than 30,000 people lived in the Keys in 1950. Now, more than 80,000 do.

In the last five decades, the number of seasonal residences has more than quadrupled in Florida, from 78,247 to 360,515, according to state figures. In Collier County, on the southwest coast, the number of seasonal residences has jumped 2,000 percent.

From 1909 to 1965, the Florida Keys took direct or indirect hits from major hurricanes 12 times; Broward County, 10 times; and Collier County, eight.

Yet no major hurricane has affected any of those areas, directly or indirectly, since 1965.

A false sense of security

The majority of the nation's coastal residents have never experienced a major hurricane.

And in virtually every coastal city of any size from Texas to Maine, the United States is building toward a hurricane disaster, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last year.

With satellites and radar providing early warning, it is unlikely that the United States will suffer a disaster such as Hurricane Mitch, blamed for more than 12,000 deaths in Central America in 1998, or the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed 8,000 people.

But though hurricane monitoring has improved immeasurably in the last 25 years, Gray believes that fancy satellite and radar graphics have given people a false sense of security.

"People see stuff on television, and they think great advancements are being made," he said, "but the actual track prediction is only a little bit better."

Hurricane specialists believe that under the wrong circumstances, significant casualties are possible along the developed coasts.

Emergency-management officials worry that coastal areas have become so crowded that evacuation routes, such as those linking the Florida Keys, North Carolina's Outer Banks, and New Jersey's barrier islands to the mainland can't handle all the evacuees.

In September, as Hurricane Floyd menaced the Southeast coast, gridlock quickly followed evacuation orders, from Florida to South Carolina. Floyd was able to move a lot faster than most of the traffic. It was the nation's largest peacetime evacuation.

Jarrell, the retired National Hurricane Center director, says he is concerned about New Orleans in particular. "It takes forever to evacuate it," he said. "Their fallback is to use the Superdome as a shelter. It may not even be safe, but it's the best you can do. Standing-room-only is better than dying."

In 1997, a hurricane-evacuation study presented a chilling portrait of what might happen in New Jersey if a major storm approached.

"The clearance times calculated for Cape May County are among the highest calculated in the United States," it said.

"Basically, what it shows is that you can't get the people off the barrier islands," said Clark Gilman, the state's director of floodplain management.

That document, prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the state police, did not create much of a stir. State officials did not circulate the study, Gilman said.

If a hurricane hit Atlantic City, Gilman warned in an earlier report, it could catch people unprepared. Many casino guests, he said, are unfamiliar with their surroundings and unaware of the peril imposed by a coastal storm or hurricane.

Close calls, nothing more

At the north end of Atlantic City, where the Boardwalk confronted the worst of the howling storm winds dead-on, a wall of water submerged Virginia Avenue on Sept. 14, 1944.

The waves were at least 25 feet high. They smashed the world's most famous promenade into dangerous chunks of debris that rode the surging waters and crashed into buildings. Four feet of water swamped an area from Virginia to Maine Avenues, and floodwaters swelled to the tips of the parking meters on Atlantic Avenue.

The bulk of the destruction came from storm waves churned by a cyclone that was agitating the ocean like a massive plunger as it moved from south to north about 30 miles offshore. The storm would kill at least 10 people in New Jersey, erase 60 percent of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and devastate Sea Isle City, Strathmere, Cape May, and Wildwood.

The damage was stunning, about a quarter of a billion dollars up and down the Jersey coast, by state police estimates.

But perhaps the most unusual aspect of the 1944 hurricane is this: Nothing like it has happened since. Hurricane Gloria, in 1985, was a close call, passing 26 miles off the coast. However, it moved swiftly, 44 m.p.h., and it approached at low tide. The '44 storm was traveling 35 m.p.h. and approached at high tide.

Like the rest of the East Coast, the beach towns of New Jersey have enjoyed a remarkable period of hurricane immunity.

"They're big-time due," said James Eberwine, the marine-forecasting specialist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly.

"When it happens, there's going to be disbelief," said Anthony Gigi, another weather service meteorologist.

A direct hit by even a modest hurricane could be catastrophic, Eberwine said. And a hurricane of the same path and intensity as the 1944 storm would do more damage now, observed Gilman, the state floodplain-management director. Sea level has risen about 8 inches since 1944, the result of melting glaciers. That translates to a more dangerous storm surge.

A storm today would also encounter a far different landscape. Over the last 50 years, the total value of property in New Jersey's coastal towns has jumped fivefold, adjusting for inflation.

A moderate hurricane is a realistic threat to the Shore and the rest of the Northeast coast, especially late in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30. Although few hurricanes can survive the cool ocean waters of northerly latitudes, the ones that do are especially erratic and dangerous. The chilly waters do not have time to drain the power from a storm caught in a fast-moving air stream.

"If a hurricane leaves the Gulf Stream at 35 m.p.h., it's like a skater out of control," said Nicholas Coch, a hurricane specialist at Queens College, in New York.

In 1938, a rapidly moving Category 3 hurricane plowed across Long Island, slamming into Connecticut and ravaging the forests of New Hampshire and Vermont. That storm remains the Northeast's worst hurricane. It killed at least 600 people.

On then-sparsely populated Long Island, another area long overdue for a catastrophic storm, it ripped open seven new inlets and killed 50 people.

In the 1930s, 162,000 people lived in Suffolk County, N.Y., which took the brunt of the 1938 hurricane.

Today, two million do.

Ominous signs

Gray and his team at Colorado State think they understand the reasons for the long hurricane lull and, alarmingly, why it's over.

Gray relies on old-style statistical relationships, rather than computer models. Two trends are especially ominous: The waters in the North Atlantic have warmed up, and it's raining again in western Africa.

In active hurricane periods, sea-surface temperatures are above average in the North Atlantic, and below average in the South Atlantic. North Atlantic temperatures have been above average for the last five years, and so have the numbers of hurricanes.

The oceans are far slower to change than land masses, and temperature trends can last 25 to 40 years, said Christopher W. Landsea, a hurricane researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It appears that the Atlantic contrasts have a profound effect on the upper atmosphere off the west coast of Africa. That's a spawning region for tropical storms. It is just far enough from the equator, about 300 miles, for a cyclone to pick up spin from the Earth's rotation. And it is a perfect location for a storm to mine deep, warm water.

To get started, a hurricane needs 80-degree waters, penetrating to a depth of 150 feet. To make the most of that heat energy, air currents have to rise several miles into a moistened atmosphere. The air condenses, releasing more heat energy and supplying more power to the storm.

A cool North Atlantic, however, favors dry winds that keep the air from rising and shear off would-be storms.

When the Sahel region of western Africa is dry, hurricanes are infrequent. But the Sahel has just been through its wettest five-year period since the 1960s, Landsea said.

Since 1995, as if on cue, the Atlantic Basin has set a record for the number of named storms for a five-year period.

Gray said that only one thing has saved the United States from catastrophic damage in that period: Dumb luck - luck that, statistically, can't last.

When the luck runs out, the experts say, insurers, property owners and taxpayers will pay a price.

Gilbert M. Gaul's e-mail address is; Anthony R. Wood's is

Inquirer researcher Frank Donahue contributed to this series.

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