Heartbreaking stories of families losing loved ones and their homes circulate every hurricane season, and while total destruction isn't guaranteed with every tropical storm, the possibility of loss is always there. Despite this, hurricane-prone states were among those that recorded significant population increases in 2022.
The draw to the areas is clear: warm weather, beachside property and low taxes in some cases. But it's a high-stakes trade-off.
Census records show that the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area in Florida grew 623%, to more than 760,000 people, from 1970 to 2020. When Hurricane Ian slammed the state's southwestern coast in 2022, the area and its residents received the full force of the damage. Experts like Stephen Strader, a hazards geographer and Villanova University professor, say that the population surge in places like Florida over recent decades and the building boom have put exponentially more people and property in harm's way.
"People want to live near the coasts and live near the beach, but that comes with a cost. Unfortunately, we have to bear the brunt of that risk," Strader told The Washington Post. "There are more people than ever before in the path of these storms. Plus, a lot of people are going to be experiencing a hurricane for the first time."
Florida, Texas and North Carolina had the largest gains from net domestic migration - or the difference between people moving in and out of the state - in 2022, according to data from the U.S. Census. In addition, Florida was the fastest-growing state that year with an annual population increase of 1.9%, according to Nadia Evangelou, a senior economist and director of Real Estate Research at the National Association of REALTORS®.
"That was the first time since 1957 that Florida's population grew faster than anywhere else across the United States and surpassed 22 million people," Evangelou told AccuWeather in an interview. "I expect this trend to follow in the upcoming years. While Florida is the most favorite destination for retirees, keep in mind that 2030 will mark a demographic turning point for the U.S. By then, all Baby Boomers will be older than 65."
In this Sept. 13, 2017, photo, a house with its roof blown off by Hurricane Irma in Summerland Key, in the Florida Keys. Rising sea levels and fierce storms have failed to stop relentless population growth along U.S. coasts in recent years, a new Associated Press analysis shows. Punishing hurricanes from the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season scored bull’s-eyes on two of the country’s fastest-growing regions: coastal Texas around Houston and resort areas of southwest Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
It's relatively older folks who are making the move to Florida, she concluded. The median age of movers was 47 years old - compared to the national level of 35 - and Evangelou noted folks looking for a warm place to retire as one reason behind many transplants.
The Villages, a retirement community some 46 miles northwest of Orlando, was the fastest-growing metro area in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020. Both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017 delivered heavy rainfall to the area, even prompting sinkholes to form, in the case of the latter.
Of the 129 Hurricane Irma-related deaths identified in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina between Sept. 4 and Oct. 10, 2017, 123 of them had occurred in Florida, and the median age of the victims was 63 years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
FILE - Police officers talk to an employee at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Fla., Sept. 13, 2017. A Florida judge rejected a prosecutor's impassioned plea Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, saying he would not reconsider his acquittal of a nursing home administrator in the overheating deaths of nine patients after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility's air conditioning in 2017. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)
One 2020 study suggests the death toll was significantly higher, however. Researchers at the University of South Florida and Brown University concluded that 433 additional residents of Florida assisted-living homes died within 90 days of the storm compared to the same period in 2015 when there were no hurricanes. According to the study, the CDC had used the death registration system to evaluate direct and indirect deaths attributed to the hurricane, but not deaths from the "exacerbation of existing medical conditions."
Impacts from Hurricane Ian in 2022 also hit folks 60 years of age and older hard. The age group made up nearly three-quarters of the fatalities in the state or 106 of Florida's 149 fatalities, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission Report from February 2023. A quarter of the state's fatalities listed a preliminary medical condition as a probable or contributing cause of death.
The majority of deaths came from Florida's Lee County, which along with Polk and Hillsborough counties, was one of the three that had the greatest population increases in 2022. Not all of the loss of life can be attributed to the population growth, however, as local leaders were criticized for the county's delayed issuance of an emergency evacuation for coastal areas.
Joe and Nancy Venuto were among those in Lee County to face Hurricane Ian's wrath. After serving in World War II and living in Southern California, Delaware and Belgium, Joe, 98, settled down in Sanibel, Florida, 35 years ago.
While they had lived through past hurricanes, Ian's storm surge brought a new threat. The hurricane washed away the bottom of their home and flooded their three cars.
"You know, when you get as old as we are, you have a lot of things to remember. I'd never think this is the way it would be," Nancy Venuto told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell.
Low taxes and relatively pleasant weather outside of the hurricanes have made the Sandbelt an attractive region to move to, according to Evangelou, but there's another factor that has contributed to the area's growth.
While these areas have "good weather, they also have very strong job growth," Evangelou said.
Recovery after the pandemic has led to a "robust job market," Evangelou said, who estimated there were about 8% more jobs in Florida than in March of 2020. She estimated the number was around 7% in Texas and 6% in North Carolina. And while Florida isn't among the cheapest states to buy a house, the state's median home value is less than other states such as California, New York and New Jersey.
According to Federal Reserve Economic Data, the median home price in Florida in 2023 is $232,000, still below the U.S. median sale price of $436,800.
However, these extreme forces of nature are taking their toll on home insurance costs - something that's essential for Florida residents to rebuild.
"I know people who are paying more for their insurance than their mortgage a month, and it's horrible, but you have to have that insurance," Jeffrey Hussey, an attorney with the Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, told AccuWeather in an interview. "Most people can't rebuild on savings alone."
The Community Legal Services focuses on aiding people paid low-income wages, who Hussey says may also face not just trouble obtaining insurance but have homes that are more susceptible to hurricane damage.
"Many of the neighborhoods, especially homeowners of low income, they don't have the same infrastructure as some of the newer developments," he said. "In Florida, we have a significant affordable housing crisis, so a lot of homes are subpar. They're not hurricane-ready. They don't survive the wind, the rain, the waters like newer-built homes. They're old codes, they're not new codes."
In this photo taken with a drone, the remains of homes demolished after sustaining heavy damage in Hurricane Ian are seen in Tropicana Sands mobile home park, bottom, in Fort Myers, Fla., Wednesday, May 10, 2023. More than seven months after the storm, crews continue removing debris after demolishing all but a handful of the hundreds of manufactured homes in the community marketed to active adults ages 55 and up. The state estimated the total insured loss from Ian in Florida was almost $14 billion, with more than 143,000 claims still open without payment or claims paid but not fully settled as of March 9. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
One concern Hussey expressed with the upcoming hurricane season was homeowners' insurance companies pulling out of the state and the costs of other insurers spiking, making it more difficult for homeowners to find insurance.
Hundreds of thousands of Florida consumers had lost coverage in 2022 due to failed insurers or policy increases, Mark Friedlander, a corporate communications director for the Insurance Information Institute, told The Washington Post last year.
Following Ian, Hussey ran across several instances where insurance costs doubled, and people couldn't find companies that would cover their properties. While aid from FEMA, SBA loans and government grants are options for people who don't have insurance, the funds are usually geared toward helping with recovery rather than fully rebuilding. All in all, it leaves those who can still afford insurance with a decision: Should they pay a steep price for insurance against a storm that might not hit, or do they take their chances without that safety net?
It comes down to one question that Hussey asks: "Are you a gambler?"
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