Crew Commentary

Systems Changes Needed in Governance, Insurance and Disaster Preparedness

Bob Leonard - Climate Risk Manager


I was in the room seven years ago when David Houle, the futurist, addressed the annual conference of Sarasota County realtors. If you don’t know, Sarasota is a seaside city on the Gulf coast of Florida. It has several heavily populated barrier islands just a couple feet above sea level. He said, “When will it become illegal to list properties vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge without notifying potential buyers?”


That went over like a lead balloon.


And here we are. While legislation has never been passed, and won’t be as long as Ron DeSantis is governor, some people are beginning to figure it out. Sea levels along U.S. coastlines are projected to rise 10 to 12 inches, on average, during the next 30 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. On Florida’s flat beaches, that amount of rise equates to hundreds of feet of run across the sands, roads, businesses and private homes… especially when a hurricane pushes a storm surge at land fall. Hurricane Ian’s storm surge was 13.8 feet along Fort Myers Beach last year. 


Yet despite serious risks associated with living close to rising seas, Florida’s coastline remains attractive to homebuyers: keeping property values in those areas relatively high, and encouraging even more real estate development there.


As more property tax revenues roll in, they boost local governments’ bottom line. Right now, Florida’s coastal areas generate $2.36 billion a year in property taxes for local governments.


But while Florida was the number one state in the country that people moved to in 2022, it was also the one with the highest number of residents wanting to relocate.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 275,666 people left Florida in 2022 – nearly 23,000 people every month. Although Boomers continue to retire to Florida in droves, some are electing to stay put in their more northern homes, or to retire to areas well away from ocean shores and frequent hurricanes. And some are selling and moving out of Florida before there’s a glut of homes on the market.


The latest edition of the Florida Climate Resilience Survey found that 90% of respondents believe climate change is happening. The finding is consistent with eight previous surveys conducted by Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies (CES), which found that 86% to 92% of respondents had that belief. 


In contrast, a recent Yale University survey found that 74% of Americans as a whole think climate change is happening.  


“Floridians might be more likely to believe climate change is happening due to their experiences with hurricanes and other extreme weather,” said Dr. Colin Polsky, the founding director of FAU’s School of Environmental, Coastal, and Ocean Sustainability (ECOS).   


The survey also found that Floridians overwhelmingly support more government action to address the impacts of climate change, with 69% support for state action and 70% support for federal action.   


“The obvious hypothesis to test is that recent personal experiences with weather events increase support for addressing climate change, regardless of party affiliation,” Polsky said.


Local revenues like property taxes are by far the largest share of funding that Florida municipalities rely on for climate change adaptation efforts. As public opinion shifts, those tax revenues will abate as people leave, decline to move to Florida altogether, or choose safer locations farther inland on the peninsula.


Other taxes will need to be raised (maybe an income tax, but definitely sales taxes). And there will be pressure to scale back or postpone adaptation efforts just when they are needed most. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of bridges in the state that are just a few feet above sea level. They will need to be raised significantly or risk being heavily damaged by storm surge.


The state’s insurance premiums, which are the highest in the country according to a recent study by the Insurance Information Institute (Triple I), are also one of the reasons Floridians are considering leaving the state, as many can no longer afford insurance on their homes.


Several homeowners told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that the increased cost of premiums has led them to completely or partially drop their insurance (what’s known as going bare) and even consider selling their properties.


Home insurance premiums have tripled in the state in the past five years, with residents currently paying on average more than $4,200 per year. The national average is $1,700, according to data from Triple I.


Some insurance premiums have risen by about nine times what they were in 2022, Oscar Seikaly, chief executive of NSI Insurance Group, told the WSJ, with multimillion-dollar homes generating premiums costing as much as $600,000 a year.


Analysts have expressed their fears of what could happen should a major natural disaster, like a hurricane, strike the state as many Floridians do not have insurance coverage. At the high end, people can afford to self-insure… they can just walk away from a disaster. 


But going bare for the average homeowner is “very dangerous, because once the storm or the fire hits, if they don’t have insurance, they’re going to suffer really big losses,” said Yanjun (Penny) Liao, an economist at Resources for the Future.


As insurance premiums are expected to continue surging and state legislators are still pondering a potential solution to the mass exodus of major insurers from the state, more and more Floridians are expected to give up coverage on their homes.




89% of the extra heat being trapped inside the climate system by the blanket of heat-trapping gases we are emitting are going into the oceans, driving sea level rise, marine heatwaves, coral bleaching events, and stronger tropical cyclones.


¿Qué pasa con Acapulco?


And what about hurricane Otis in Acapulco last week? It is unprecedented (that’s a term you are going to be hearing a lot).


“Residents and tourists in Acapulco, Mexico went to bed Tuesday night expecting a strong tropical storm or at worst a minimal Category 1 hurricane. By morning, everyone assumed the city would face scattered tree damage, a few power outages, maybe a couple of flooded streets, and trashed awnings and such. 


Instead, Tropical Storm Otis in a flash strengthened to a Category 5 monster, with top winds at landfall in Acapulco around 165 mph. This is a worst case scenario for a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest possible. It strengthened rapidly, giving no time for residents to prepare. 


Worse, it caught seasoned forecasters by surprise. Nobody anticipated it would be nearly this bad. And this is the first known case of a Category 5 hurricane directly striking a city with a population of more than 1 million.” – Matt Sutkoski of Matt’s Weather Report



The city is devastated. No buildings were designed to withstand 165 mph winds. There’s little hurricane insurance coverage because they used to be rare in this location. No recovery plan in place because this was so unprecedented.


“There are no hurricanes on record even close to this intensity for this part of Mexico,” read one NHC update, late on Tuesday, as a flurry of alerts were issued.


This is a scary new paradigm in the tropics. And we all need to worry.


We know why: it’s because data and models all look backwards, at the way things have been. They’re consistently failing to account for how an extra 10 zetajoules of heat per year are powering stronger and more dangerous storms that intensify faster.


While Otis is a record-setter, this is far from the first time the eastern Pacific has seen rapidly intensifying hurricanes this year. A whopping 80% of this year’s storms have undergone rapid intensification. Norma did it just before Otis, and Lidia earlier this month went from 80 to 140 mph in just 18 hours. Jova, in September, went from 70 to 155 mph in a day.


We are in a new era, one in which our climate crisis, through the physical changes it’s producing in the ocean and atmosphere, is boosting windspeeds and rainfall in hurricanes. The insurers and reinsurers see it, and it’s reflected in their premiums. The military sees it, and it’s reflected in the actions they’re taking to retrofit bases and prepare for climate-driven crises. And three in four Americans see it.


NOTE: Both David and I have left the state of Florida. I moved to Oregon after hurricane Irma and David moved to Illinois after hurricane Idalia. That doesn’t mean we are not vulnerable to the impacts of our climate crisis, just less so than in many other locations.


Since moving to Oregon five years ago, we experienced a once in a hundred year forest fire in the Portland area; and a once in a hundred year ice storm – we lost power for three days; and a once in a thousand year extreme heat bomb resulting in many deaths. A lot of homes don’t have air conditioning because it wasn’t needed. Unprecedented!


And as I write this on Monday October 30th, there’s an innocuous looking low over the Northeast U.S. that is forecast to rapidly intensify to a powerful “bomb-cyclone” menacing Northwest Europe in less than 48 hours. Thanks to a powerhouse 200+ mph jet stream, Storm Ciarán’s 3,000-mile journey across the super-heated North Atlantic will be quick and explosive. The UK, France and Spain are forecast to bear the brunt of it. Expect wind gusts up to 100 mph, storm surge and flooding from torrential rain.


We have a lot of work to do beyond transitioning to renewable energy. We need systems changes in governments, disaster relief agencies, insurance business models, zoning, and building codes. And we must change. We must become climate literate so we can predict weather vulnerabilities better. We must adapt – move out of harm’s way, rewild coastlines so they buffer the winds and storm surges.


Have I caused you to feel climate anxiety? Good. The best way to address it is to get busy. There’s a zillion things that need to be done. No matter what your interests, skills, education, expertise… there are many actions you can take.


Most importantly – VOTE! Learn which candidates are taking our climate crisis seriously and support them.