Commentary: Wilma reminds of storms’ physical, economic damage
Published in the Palm Beach Post on October 24, 2015
In the early hours of Oct. 24, 2005, Category 3 Hurricane Wilma came barreling into Collier County with winds up to 125 miles per hour. Ten years later, it’s important to look back at Wilma as a lesson in physical and financial preparation.
As Wilma formed between Cuba and Mexico and strengthened into a major hurricane, it seemed imminent the monster storm would impact Florida. The state was still reeling from the 2004 season and from Hurricane Dennis, a $2.5 billion storm in the Florida Panhandle that would have headlined any normal season, which was soon overshadowed by devastating Hurricane Katrina. Those storms preceded September’s Hurricane Rita’s wrath in the Florida Keys before moving to Texas.
Wilma, which caused $17 billion in damage in Florida alone, was the exclamation point on a tumultuous season, which brought into focus Florida’s vulnerability. Fortunately, Wilma was the last major storm that hit Florida. For 10 years now, Floridians have blissfully avoided the feeling that something would soon rip up homes and businesses with devastating winds and waves. But Florida shouldn’t get complacent — in fact, it can’t afford to.
That’s why environmental groups, think tanks, businesses and consumer groups, such as the Stronger Safe Florida Coalition, continue to push Florida leaders to depopulate the state-backed and run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which is still Florida’s largest insurer. Citizens was created to be the “insurer of last resort” and to provide stability to Florida’s insurance market. When a hurricane strikes and damage is done, Citizens Corporation is able to levy assessments on all policies, not just those it operates.
However, Citizens has historically set its rates below costs, which effectively subsidizes many wealthy homeowners along the coast, including thousands of out-of-state and foreign homeowners who paid cash for their homes. If homeowners can afford to pay cash for their homes, they can afford to pay their full insurance premiums and not push these costs to taxpayers and other insurance consumers. Since the 2005 hurricane season, in the absence of a hurricane, Floridians have shelled out $2 billion in these assessments to Citizens.
The good news is that Citizens has shrunk from 1.5 million policies at its peak to roughly 600,000 policies today, effectively shifting costs and risks to the private sector. With fewer policies, Citizens is better able to can handle claims on its own.
Florida leaders have also taken steps to transfer risk from the state-backed reinsurer, the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, to private risk bearers, who fund potential hurricane losses. Transferring risk from the Cat Fund also protects consumers, reducing the risk of paying post-storm taxes. The Cat Fund levied about $3 billion of hurricane taxes after 2005.
Along with financial preparation, state and local officials must insist on risk-appropriate building codes for new and modified homes to building codes to reduce the likelihood of houses being torn apart by winds and floods that can cause billions of dollars in damage. Individuals must be prepared in every way as well. Hurricane shutters are a good line of defense, as is tying down and packing up materials that can do environmental damage and financial damage if they get loose or collide with other structures.
Preparing and dealing with a hurricane is a team effort and everyone must comply. Florida has been extremely lucky to avoid a major storm since Hurricane Wilma devastated the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida. No expert believes it will last. Therefore, leaders, residents and businesses must all prepare Florida for the worst.