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.
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
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