Thursday, July 4, 2013

A side note on Joseph's climate change post...

Particularly the part where he discusses Miami and its grim-looking future. Of the coastal cities in North America, Miami is certainly among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Here, via Wikipedia, are some elevations:

Miami    Elevation 6 ft (2 m)

New York City Elevation 33 ft (10 m)

Los Angeles   Elevation 233 (city hall) ft (71 m)
(Ours is a rugged shore)

Even before rising sea level was a concern, building a major city in an area routinely hit by hurricanes (often accompanied by large storm surges) on a patch of land with an elevation of six feet was a questionable idea.

Consider the Miami Hurricane of 1926:
Most of the coastal inhabitants had not evacuated, partly because of short warning (a hurricane warning was issued just a few hours before landfall) and partly because the "young" city's population knew little about the danger a major hurricane posed. A 15-foot (4.6 m) storm surge inundated the area, causing massive property damage and some fatalities. As the eye of the hurricane crossed over Miami Beach and downtown Miami, many people believed the storm had passed. Some tried to leave the barrier islands, only to be swept off the bridges by the rear eyewall. "The lull lasted 35 minutes, and during that time the streets of the city became crowded with people," wrote Richard Gray, the local weather chief. "As a result, many lives were lost during the second phase of the storm."
Inland, Lake Okeechobee experienced a high storm surge that broke a portion of the dikes, flooding the town of Moore Haven and killing many. This was just a prelude to the deadly 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, which would cause a massive number of fatalities estimated at 2,500 around the lake. 
Coastal regions between Mobile and Pensacola, Florida also suffered heavy damage from wind, rain, and storm surge, but this paled beside the news of the destruction in Miami. According to the Red Cross there were 373 fatalities. Other estimates vary, since there were a large number of people listed as "missing". Between 25,000 and 50,000 people were left homeless, mostly in the Miami area. 
The damage from the storm was immense; few buildings in Miami or Miami Beach were left intact. The toll for the storm was $100 million ($1.3 billion 2013 USD). It is estimated that if an identical storm hit in the year 2005, with modern development and prices, the storm would have caused $140–157 billion in damage.

$157 billion (adjusted for inflation) also happened to be the total cost of the hurricane. (from the same source):

Costliest U.S. Atlantic hurricanes 1900–2005
Total estimated property damage, adjusted for wealth normalization[4]
Rank Hurricane Season Cost (2005 USD)
1 "Miami" 1926 $157 billion
2 "Galveston" 1900 $99.4 billion
3 Katrina 2005 $81.0 billion
4 "Galveston" 1915 $68.0 billion
5 Andrew 1992 $55.8 billion
6 "New England" 1938 $39.2 billion
7 "Cuba–Florida" 1944 $38.7 billion
8 "Okeechobee" 1928 $33.6 billion
9 Donna 1960 $26.8 billion
10 Camille 1969 $21.2 billion

All of which got me wondering if this seemingly inexplicable piece of bad urban planning could be traced back to Florida's long and colorful history of real estate bubbles. People, pretty much by definition, act irrationally during bubbles and you'd be hard pressed to find a state more associated with them than Florida.

This association is so long standing that buying Florida swamp land was a reliable punchline all the way back in the Twenties.
The Cocoanuts was written for the Marx Brothers after the success of their Broadway hit I'll Say She Is (1924). The Cocoanuts is set against the backdrop of the 1920s Florida Land Boom, which was followed by the inevitable bust. Groucho is a hotel proprietor, land impresario, and con man, assisted and hampered by two inept grifters, Chico and Harpo, and the ultra-rational hotel assistant, Zeppo. Groucho pursues a wealthy dowager ripe for a swindle, played by the dignified Margaret Dumont.

If Florida didn't have such a history of scams and bubbles, would it still look so much like a Marx Brothers movie today?

1 comment:

  1. Ironically it was the winter of 1895-96 with its freezing temperatures that started it all. With Flagler's railroad, orange growers competed with California citrus. Then upwards of 80% of the market fruit went away. The freeze of 1966 is what sent Minute Maid to Brazil, which afterward changed Florida's economy in regards to FCOJ. While truck farms, cattle and dairy are big contributors in Florida's agriculture, citrus is obviously the top one. Moreover, oranges are as susceptible to damage from hurricanes due to wind. When disaster hits a truck farm, you lose a crop. Losses in dairy and cattle are usually minimal. A citrus grower losing a mature tree loses 6-8 years of production. It's no surprise that converting grove land to commercial or residential is attractive. There's not as much privately held "swamp" (wetlands?) in Florida, as there are untended citrus groves. These groves were bought by REITs for future development, then the housing bubble burst, hence - untended. Psst, wanna buy a farm, cheap?
    And if it were not for air conditioning, you could not, would not, live there. That climate is not changing for the better.