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Retire in an Area Prone to Hurricanes?

Category: Retirement Real Estate

October 16, 2018 — Here is a conundrum facing many retiring baby boomers, particularly those from the Northeast. You dream of escaping cold winters and snow, and replacing those annoyances with warm winters, sandy beaches, and being outside in shorts all year round. But, the Eastern and Gulf coasts of the U. S. come along with a big problem – hurricanes! This article will explore the issues associated with retiring to an area prone to hurricanes, a danger that recent history has shown to be a growing and very serious threat.

To tackle the issue we’ll break it up into three parts: what to think about before you move to an area with hurricane potential, steps you need to take if you do buy or rent in one of those areas, and the issues you need to prepare for if and when a hurricane threatens you and your home.
Hurricane Iris
Hurricanes threaten the entire east coast all the way from Florida north up to Maine, and west along the Gulf Coast to Texas. The threat is growing more dangerous thanks to climate change and as the oceans store more and more energy in the form of heat. In an average season we see 6 hurricanes, and 2.5 of those are Category 3 or higher. In 2017 there were 10 hurricanes, with 6 of those considered major storms: Irma and Maria were both Category 5 storms and two of the strongest on record. As Hurricanes Florence and Michael proved in 2018, areas far away from the coasts can also be impacted. Note that wind is not the only hurricane danger – storm surges come in quickly and silently – a sudden wall of water can be 10 feet high, inundating everything in its path. Other dangers in these areas are king tides, rising water levels, and flash floods which can close roads and threaten homes.

Consider these out before you buy
If you are seriously thinking about moving to an area where there is a good chance of a hurricane, and that covers a lot of territory, here are some things to think about.

– Research the area. Find out how many major storms have affected it. What was the level of devastation? Did it include flooding or storm surges that might likely happen again? Hurricane Michael just proved that just because an area hasn’t been hit before doesn’t mean it won’t be.

– FEMA maps. These are a good way to evaluate the risk of specific areas and lots. They show the areas identified as flood zones. Recognize that the maps are updated periodically as water levels rise – we know people whose lot was considered safe, and then a few years later re-classified into a flood zone.

– Burned once might be better. In some ways an area that has experienced severe hurricane damage might be a safer bet than one that has not. That’s because mitigation has taken place – bridges and other infrastructure were rebuilt to better withstand catastrophic weather. Newer homes and condos are built to a much more stringent code. Local officials have experience in dealing with the aftermath.

So you decided to buy, how can you minimize the danger and risk?
– First, don’t buy anywhere until you know how well the building was constructed. What was the year of the building code it was built under (they differ by state and even within a state)? What is the reputation of the builder? How did it fare in previous storms?
– Rent vs. buy. The safest thing to do is to rent and not buy. That way if there is a damaging storm you can walk away, leaving your landlord to deal with the nightmare of rebuilding.

– Think about buying in a development or condo. If you are part of a community you might be better off than if you own a home independently. That’s because the community probably has insurance on the exterior of your building, and it can pay for resources to repair and clean up infrastructure. But it is worth it to explore what kind of insurance the community has and how strong its reserve funds are.

– Better than code. If building from scratch or it is not finished, build better and higher than code. Along the coast, 12 feet above sea level used to be one standard (depending on flood risk) – it is now more likely 13 or even higher. This FEMA page of requirements for elevated homes has a lot more on this complex topic. The cost to go beyond code does not usually mean a huge cost increase, but it could pay off for insurance and safety reasons. Even if your home is an existing one, you can still do retrofits that will increase your safety and reduce the risk that comes from wind or water destroying your home. Those include impact resistant windows, rolldown or other types of shutters, stronger doors (homes with strong windows have been damaged because their doors were not), and roof and foundation tie-downs. See “Related Reading” below to find out more about how one specially built house in Mexico Beach remained one of the few undamaged homes in Hurricane Michael.

Find out your insurance costs before you buy
Ask your real estate agent to get copies of all insurance bills, and know what was covered. Or ask your current agent for a quote. If the property currently has government flood insurance, will you be able to renew it, and what will the cost be? Can you get wind insurance, and at what cost? Note that most policies in coastal areas specifically exclude flood and wind damage, the two dangers you are most likely to experience. At least from an insurance perspective, many homeowners would be better off if their home is hit by a wildfire or volcanic eruption than in a hurricane. In Florida, Citizens Property Insurance is the insurer of last resort, and sometimes your only option.

How to Prepare for a Hurricane
So you decided to buy in an area with the potential of hurricanes, and you prepared your home to try to withstand it. How can you be prepared when one comes anyway?

– Have a hurricane preparation kit. Have a (usable) stock of emergency supplies on hand, such as food, water, solar recharger, radio, etc. Have a plan for where you will go, and a full tank of gas. Get a generator. A full house generator will probably cost $10,000 or more to get installed, but might be able to run for a week without refueling. Portable ones need to be operated safely.

– Listen and obey warnings and orders. If the governor says to evacuate, get out (early!). In Mexico Beach, as of this date dozens of the 289 people who stayed despite evacuation orders are missing. We know people who stayed through Hurricane Irma when it hit the Florida Keys last year. Most say they were glad they stayed because they could get a jump on cleaning up the damage. But the risk of being killed or injured with no available medical care in one of these storms, plus the major inconvenience of spending weeks without power, water, or supermarkets makes it seem not worth it. Plus, if you stay when you were told to leave you are just in the way, and no one is obliged to help you.

– Be ready for winds, floods and storm surge – even far from the coast. When Hurricane Wilma hit the Florida Keys in 2005, people who stayed through it thought it had passed, and they had escaped. Then 4 feet of water swept through in a matter of minutes. In 2018, some of the worst hit communities from Hurricanes Florence and Michael were those far from the coast. These places were not prepared for a state of emergency that might last for weeks.

– Have a contractor plan. If a hurricane hits your area there is going to be significant damage. Even landscape damage can be difficult. Trees across your driveway, fences downed by debris, roofs torn off or damaged. Finding an honest contractor (after a big storm there are lots of unreliable ones) can be a nightmare. If you have an existing relationship with a reliable contractor or handyperson – cultivate it! Permits to rebuild are another hassle. Keep your plans handy and be prepared to hire a professional to help.

For further reading
Worst Places to Retire for Weather and Natural Disasters
2017 Hurricane Season Has Plenty of Lessons for Rent vs. Buy Choice
Built for the Big One – One House Remains on Mexico Beach
Eyewitness Report: Hurricane Michael Hits St. Vincent Island and Tallahassee
Comments? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Are you concerned about moving to an area prone to hurricanes?
Please share your thoughts and concerns as you go through the process of deciding where to retire.

Posted by Admin on October 15th, 2018


  1. For the past 5 years or so, my husband & I have been considering moving to the Gulf coast area when we retire. More recently we’ve been checking out the Pensacola area. However, given the number, size, and general nastiness of the storms that have rolled through Florida over the past couple of years, we’re rethinking that idea and considering staying here in Arizona (just traveling more instead). We get some crazy weather here in AZ on occasion (heavy rains, big winds, rare microburst), but nothing ever approaching the severity of the hurricane events around Florida coastal areas. Apparently, that old saying about “the grass isn’t necessarily greener…” is true!

    by Marlene Harris — October 17, 2018

  2. This comment was moved from a different Blog to this one for a better fit:

    I lived in South Florida for 18 years. Every year the hurricanes threatened my life there and some of them actually stopped my life while moving through. It is a stop because you and your family worry as each bulletin comes over the tv. You load up on supplies, board up windows, sandbag, and hope it all isn’t needed. None of it is fun. It is costly, and if you have to evacuate you spend hours on the road and then more expense holing up in a motel if no friends or relatives are close. I lived in Homestead. It was decimated, just like Mexico Beach. You can’t come back. You have to rely on donations of food and water and find a temporary home until you and the insurance agency can come to an agreement. You have to have monetary reserves for all the unexpected expenses and lose things you have had all your life. So, take heed. It isn’t like falling off a log. It is personally devastating and I will never live close enough to spend another day on hurricane watch.
    by PamE — October 16, 2018

    by Jane at Topretirements — October 17, 2018

  3. I understand Jane in the above note. We live slightly inland in coastal Charleston, SC. We love it here and fear the same TV /hurricane messages. But we stay.
    The only thing I can say similar to Jane is it is like having a beloved pet. You have them for maybe 15 years or so. You know that they are going to die. But the pleasure they bring you for those 15 years or so are worth the heartbreak when they leave. You are crushed. You are in pain. You are a wreck for a long period. You say you will never get or love another pet for the rest of your life. But eventually something happens and you do. Someone brings you something that needs love, or your former veterinarian calls and tells you a pet that reminded him of your previous pet had a litter and the owner needs your help and will gift you one. What do you do?
    You ignore the hurricane warnings and return to the “danger zone” of what you love and need and begin anew.

    by Jack — October 17, 2018

  4. Loved Jack’s comments! We were Florida snowbirds for 13 years in the middle of the state. We have just made the big move full time to the gulf coast near Venice. In the center of the state, there were tornadoes to worry about. I may change my mind but right now I will take the risk to be 6 miles from the beach. The new hurricane standards are pretty stringent and hopefully we would have little or no damage. During hurricane Irma, one pool cage in our community was damaged. Everyone has to decide what they are comfortable with doing.

    by Sandy — October 18, 2018

  5. Sandy, never, ever underestimate the danger and devastation of hurricanes! Sounds l8ke you have never lived through one. Good luck in your new home, but I just don’t want you to think that a hurricane is comparable to a wind storm that blows your pool cover off! Just make sure you have an evacuation plan.

    by Maimi — October 19, 2018

  6. It really doesn’t matter where you live these days. Places that “never” flood are flooding. Fires are decimating our forests and homes in the West. Hurricanes are getting stronger…..I could go on and on but that has never stopped me from living where I am happiest. I was born in California and experienced earth quakes. I was raised in the Florida Keys and experienced hurricane “Donna” in 1960. Then I went to Anchorage, AK for many years and felt some really strong earthquakes and just missed a couple of avalanches along highways there….lived in Texas for over 25 years and there is nothing like a Texas tornado. After all that I loved every single one of those places and wouldn’t change a single memory. Now we are retired in Fort Myers, FL. We live about 25 miles inland from the beaches because of the cost of homes on the water and expensive various insurances (flood/home). We were directly hit by Hurricane Irma with very little damage. It was a Category 3 when it hit us. Living a bit inland we do not have to worry about storm surge BUT when picking out a community it is wise to check out their history of local flooding. Fortunately our community weathered the storm very well and not one home had flood waters. We live in a newer (6 yrs) house that is built to Miami building codes,have an evacuation plan and keep supplies on hand year around. We also invested in electronic shutters, etc. etc. If you do your homework on living in Florida, it is a great place to live. With that said, if we are ever faced with a Category 4 or 5 hurricane in Fort Myers, our car will be the first one on the road North outta here!

    by Toni — October 19, 2018

  7. Maimi, Yes, we were here for a hurricane. We also were in Hawaii on the 17th floor of a hotel once for another hurricane. Hurricanes are incredibly frightening but maybe because I grew up in the Midwest, tornados scare me the same. I have an evacuation plan. I have all the things they recommend for a hurricane. I still intend to be gone when one comes though. I realize I am fortunate that I can leave.

    by Sandy mueller — October 21, 2018

  8. We moved the last couple of comments that discuss living in Fort Myers, Florida, to a different Blog:

    What is the Better Part of Florida for Retirement: Coast or Interior:

    by Jane at Topretirements — October 21, 2018

  9. We survived Irma with not much damage. Got a new roof and a new perimeter lighting system. Where I lived before, there were destructive tornadoes. Bad weather can hit anywhere. Forest fires, earthquakes, etc. I’m staying in SE Florida.

    by Linda — October 21, 2018


    by Rich — October 21, 2018

  11. We moved to SE Florida coast one year ago. We couldn’t be happier! The cost of living is lower, utilities cheaper, and waking up each day now is like waking up in paradise We love boating, swimming, fishing, outdoor concerts year round, sitting on the dock of the bay restaurant enjoying an ice cold beer and watching a football game being played in the snow. We are close to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Keys, the West Coast, Bahamas, Palm Beaches, and our beach Life is great.

    by Skip — October 22, 2018

  12. OK Skip I’m in! Can you tell me the location & name of your piece of paradise, thanks

    by Virginia — October 22, 2018

  13. Thanks, Skip.
    Its good to hear favorable impressions and experiences. There is so much spoken gloom and doom, it becomes disheartening.

    Its gratifying to hear paradise still exists, in the flesh and the mind.
    A small sliver from this side of heaven will be mine very soon.
    Again, thank you, Skip.

    by Alan E — October 22, 2018

  14. My wife and I moved from Yuma Arizona in early 2017. We have had one hurricane pass just east of us in Sun City Center (2017). Lots of rain and wind but nothing we hadn’t experienced in Yuma. Another hurricane passed to the West many miles recently. We did have clouds and some rain, maybe 1/2 an inch but little wind at all. We now love in On Top Of The World in Ocala Florida. Our home was completed in January 2018 and is built to the most recent building codes. Being inland the risk of damage is much less than in coastal areas.
    Our cost of living is reduced and we are closer to family.

    by Gary Burris — October 27, 2018

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