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Top 10 worst places for an extreme hurricane to strike

Researchers say it's only a matter of time before another catastrophic hurricane (Category 3, 4, or 5) slams into our coastline. The problem is that when it does strike, the potential for cataclysmic financial loss has grown exponentially with the increase in the nation's population and accumulation of wealth on the coastline.

Top 10 worst places for an extreme hurricane to strike
Possible insured losses*
Potential total economic losses**
1 Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, FL $61.3 billion $122.6 billion
2 New York City, NY $26.5 billion $53
3 Tampa/ St. Petersburg, FL $25.1 billion $50 billion
4 Houston/Galveston, Texas $16.8 billion $33.6 billion
5 New Orleans, LA $8.4 billion $16.8 billion
6 Mobile, AL $6.0 billion $12
7 Boston, MA $5.1 billion $10.2 billion
8 Biloxi/Gulfport, Miss. $5.1 billion $10.2
9 Myrtle Beach, SC $4.3 billion $8.6 billion

Norfolk, VA

$3.9 billion $7.8

Sources: *AIR Worldwide Corp.

When inflation and increases in coastal population and wealth are taken into account, Hurricane Andrew's 1992 total losses of $26 billion would cost in excess of $41 billion today, according to Christopher Landsea, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

By comparison, the total economic losses caused by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 are currently estimated to exceed $80 billion.

"A worst-case scenario hurricane has the potential to cause $100 billion in economic losses," says Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado.

Most vulnerable cities

Researchers say the greatest losses from a direct strike of an extreme hurricane would occur in heavily populated coastal cities and surrounding communities. The worst place in the United States for an extreme hurricane to strike is the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area, according to AIR Worldwide Corp., a catastrophe-modeling and weather-risk management company.

There's a real possibility the United States could suffer two $100 billion losses at once.

A severe hurricane striking this heavily populated region, just north of where Andrew struck in 1992, could produce insured losses of more than $60 billion and total economic losses could exceed $122 million, double the amount of insured losses.

When AIR looks at the projected losses from nearly worst-case hurricane scenarios (the most severe storm in every 1,000 years to strike a particular location), at $26.5 billion New York captures the No. 2 spot in projected insured losses, followed by Tampa/St Petersburg ($25.1 billion), Houston/Galveston ($16.8), and New Orleans ($8.4 billion).

According to Landsea, the worst-case "triple-whammy scenario" would be one in which a Category 5 hurricane crashes directly into Miami, veers off, and then slams into New Orleans, causing severe flooding all along the Gulf Coast before losing its punch. If this scenario were to occur, there's a real possibility the United States could suffer two $100 billion losses at once.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is constantly preparing for disasters and the agency is hard at work studying catastrophes, such as extreme hurricanes and other cataclysmic events on the scale of Sept. 11. FEMA says it is particularly concerned with evacuation plans to minimize the loss of life.

The significant decrease in deaths due to hurricanes is one of the nation's greatest public safety successes, says Landsea. "We used to measure deaths in the hundreds and thousands."

The Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900 killed an estimated 8,000 people at the turn of the century. By comparison, 23 people lost their lives in Hurricane Andrew. Researchers attribute the significant decrease in deaths despite a hefty increase in population to a variety of factors, including better building codes, improved weather forecasting, and early warning systems for the public.

Most damaging hurricanes

By accounting for inflation and increases in coastal population and wealth, Pielke and Landsea say a 1926 unnamed Category 4 hurricane that struck Southeast Florida and then made landfall in Alabama actually surpasses Hurricane Andrew as the nation's most devastating hurricane when they compare all hurricane losses adjusted to 2002 dollars.

Although it was not Florida's most powerful storm, they say the 1926 hurricane was the most powerful to strike Miami directly. Its winds averaged 76 mph for 24 hours. Damages from the hurricane reached $115 million (in 1926 dollars) and more than 240 people died. According to Pielke and Landsea, if a hurricane of that magnitude were to strike Miami today, it would be the costliest on record, with an estimated $80 billion in damage.

Top 10 most damaging hurricanes, 1900-2002
Damage (in 2002 dollars)
Unnamed (SE FL/AL)
$90.6 billion
Andrew (SE FL)
$41.4 billion
Unnamed (N. Texas)
$33.3 billion
Unnamed (N. Texas)
$28.2 billion
Unnamed (SW Florida)
$21.1 billion
Unnamed (New England)
$20.8 billion
Unnamed (SE FL)
$17.2 billion
Betsy (SE FL/LA)
$15.5 billion
Donna (FL./E U.S.)
$15.1 billion
Camille (MS/LA/VA)
$13.7 billion
Source: Roger Pielke, Jr. and Christopher Landsea

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