The Palm Beach Post

Disasters undo economies — temporaril­y


Hurricanes impose huge losses of wealth and initially slow regional economies, but over time they can be a tonic that creates more prosperous communitie­s. After Florence, resort areas along the coast and thriving commercial areas inland are likely to rebuild quickly, but poorer, rural inland communitie­s may be left to languish.

Initial estimates of the destructio­n from the storm range of $17 billion to $22 billion but may go much higher. The sums paid out to homeowners will only be a fraction of losses because many homeowners’ policies do not include flood coverage and often contain high deductible­s for hurricane damage.

As hurricanes go, Florence could be among the 10 most costly to hit the United States but won’t be near the top of the list. When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the figure was $161 billion, and last year, Maria hit Puerto Rico and Harvey trounced Texas with losses of $90 billion and $125 billion.

Florence’s path includes valuable beach homes, hotels and attraction­s, and inland activities vital to the national economy — Boeing, Daimler and Volvo factories halted production ahead of the storm.

Hurricanes hitting those areas provide opportunit­ies to start over and replace with larger and more modern facilities. After Hugo (1989) and more recent storms hit the Outer Banks, smaller beach homes on large plots were replaced by structures with more bedrooms, baths and attractive kitchens that could more comfortabl­y accommodat­e large families and command higher rents. Insurance settlement­s permitted owners of aging restaurant­s and amusements to reinvest in more attractive businesses.

This increased the value of the shoreline and nearby shopping malls and other businesses.

It permitted owners who were inadequate­ly insured to more easily borrow to rebuild or recoup some of their losses by selling land at better prices.

Seventy percent of the flood damage imposed by Harvey, which hit Texas last year, was not insured. Many homeowners took their chances with the weather and got burned, or were not aware that ordinary homeowners’ policies often don’t cover flooding.

Many moderate-income families and smaller businesses are struggling and may never find the money to rebuild.

It seems homeowners and businesses buy insurance immediatel­y after a hurricane, become complacent as storm memories fade and then get caught when disaster strikes again. Communitie­s hit by Florence are ripe for a repeat of such tragic situations.

The National Flood Insurance program has about 134,000 policies in place in North Carolina — less than 15 percent of residences and down 3.6 percent from 2013.

Storms temporaril­y depress regional economies but not as much as folks think — a lot of activity gets shifted around. Folks evacuated, factories closed and movie theaters lost a lot of patronage ahead of Florence, but inland shelters hired staff, fleeing evacuees purchased gas and groceries, hardware stores did a robust business in sandbags, emergency pumps and the like, and livestock producers piled up on feed and fuel to keep their animals safe in barns.

When the storm passes, lost production at aircraft and auto factories will be made up and the rebuilding of homes and commercial establishm­ents will have profound multiplier effects for the local economy.

On net, storms tend to subtract from GDP in the early months and add to it in later months — leaving the economy, on balance, with few overall effects after a year.

PETER MORICI, WASHINGTON, D.C. Editor’s note: Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland.

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