Hurricane watchers await Big One

Storm equivalent to that of '26 would do estimated $80 billion in damage

April 09, 2000|By Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood | Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood,Knight Ridder/Tribune

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 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 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.

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 of Mexico.

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 before 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, 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 Florida 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.

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