[Updated Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 at 1:00 PM Eastern time]
Time had run out for Florida residents to evacuate on Sunday morning, as Hurricane Irma took its long-predicted turn to the north, regaining Category 4 strength on its forecast path up Florida's west coast, with Tampa squarely in the crosshairs. Miami and the Atlantic shore will be spared the storm's worst wrath. But the powerful hurricane is wider than the state of Florida, and is certain to bring damaging winds and floods to most of the state. By noon, a "wobble" in the storm's track was signaling more hours of wind for the Miami area, forecasters said, as the storm continued to pound the region. "More than 1.5 million homes and businesses in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were without power Sunday afternoon," the Miami Herald reported. With Houston and other coastal communities still reeling from Harvey's crippling floods, Florida now faces catastrophic levels of damage the state has not seen since 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
Follow Irma status updates here:
- National Hurricane Center for storm path updates
- Southeast weather radar from NOAA
- Weather Underground Category 6 blog for in-depth analysis
- The Weather Channel for current weather reports
- Colorado State's experimental "GOES 16" satellite image feed for views from space
The back-to-back disasters come at a critical moment. As of Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was due to run out of money for handling weather emergencies, according to a Bloomberg report (see: "FEMA Is Almost Out of Money and Hurricane Irma Is Approaching," by Christopher Flavelle and Erik Wasson). "As of 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which pays for the agency’s disaster response and recovery activity, had just $1.01 billion on hand," Bloomberg reported. "And of that, just $541 million was 'immediately available' for response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey, according to a spokeswoman for FEMA who asked not to be identified by name. The $1.01 billion in the fund Tuesday morning is less than half of the $2.14 billion that was there at 9 a.m. last Thursday morning -- a spend rate of $9.3 million every hour, or about $155,000 a minute. The agency would be out of funds just as Irma, a category 5 hurricane, might start thrashing the coast of Florida."
Last-minute funding deal. The cash crunch came as Congress faces a fiscal crisis of its own making: the so-called "debt ceiling" that caps the United States Treasury's authorization to borrow money. As House and Senate leaders from both parties pondered FEMA's cash needs for addressing Harvey's record-setting damage toll, they also had to grapple with the political implications of raising the Treasury's borrowing limit. But by Friday, both houses had passed a compromise bill pushed by Democratic leaders, providing FEMA with $15 billion for disaster relief and kicking the debt-ceiling can down the road until December. The Hill had this report (see: "House passes Trump deal on majority Democratic vote," by Cristina Marcos). "The House on Friday cleared a short-term measure to avoid a government shutdown and raise the debt limit through December, ratifying a deal President Trump struck with Democrats," The Hill reported. "Lawmakers voted 316-90 for the package that includes more than $15 billion in disaster recovery aid for communities affected by Hurricane Harvey."
But $15 billion is barely a down payment on this season's catastrophe costs. "Hurricane Harvey could be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history with a potential price tag of $190 billion, according to a preliminary estimate from private weather firm AccuWeather," USA Today reported in August (see: "Harvey to be costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, estimated cost of $190 billion," by Doyle Rice). That's without considering Irma's toll — which may well break Harvey's record before it's a month old.
And money for recovery is not the only challenge for lawmakers. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the nation's only significant source of homeowners' insurance against flood damage, is running on a five-year authorization that expires at the end of September. That happens just as the program is about to shoulder its biggest liability since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina breached the New Orleans levees. So this month, in the immediate aftermath of two record-setting killer storms, and with most of hurricane season still to come, leaders in the nation's capital have to figure out how to keep the country's only flood insurance program running in the face of mounting federal debt, and with no national consensus in place to support their efforts.
Just days before Harvey took shape in the Gulf of Mexico, FEMA administrator Brock Long went on record advocating for a reduction in federal exposure to flood risk, reported Bloomberg (see: "Trump FEMA Chief Supports Cutting Coverage for Flood-Prone Homes," by Christopher Flavelle). "Brock Long, who was confirmed in June as the administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for homes that keep flooding, and the threshold for triggering federal public assistance after a disaster might be too low," reported Bloomberg. "He also expressed support for an Obama administration idea to make local governments pay more when a hurricane or flood hits."
"One option is limiting coverage for homes that flood over and over again," reported Bloomberg. "Long said he supports keeping those homes out of the program altogether. 'There are a handful of properties that create a large portion of that cost burden,' Long said. 'We’ve got to start there, and at some point cut that off.'"
Craig Fugate, who headed up FEMA during the Obama administration, took a similar stance in an interview with USA Today (see: "Former FEMA chief Craig Fugate argues against rebuilding in flood zones without changes," by Ledyard King). "My simple suggestion is stop growing the problem," said Fugate. "Why are we writing flood insurance (policies) for new construction in flood zones? Think about it: If you’re going to build a new structure in the flood zone, the private sector can insure it. And if they can’t insure it, then why is the public subsidizing that risk? ... Why do we have to focus so much on building the capability to respond to these huge disasters when the fact is we’re building and designing in a way that produces the disasters. Quit calling them natural disasters. They’re just a disaster. They’re only a disaster from a hazard like Harvey based upon how and where we built."
Forecasting the damage: Professional engineer Tim Reinhold, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer with the Institute for Business and Home Safety, had decades of research into hurricane-resistant construction under his belt, which includes founding the Institute's unique full-scale wind-testing laboratory in South Carolina. In an email to JLC as Irma approached, Reinhold described the lessons to be learned from the storm's impact on Florida, depending on the storm's track. Wrote Reinhold: "A lot will depend on the track and strength when it does make landfall. An East Coast track that comes a bit closer to the coast with stronger winds than last year’s Matthew could be quite costly as it would blast the entire east coast of Florida and may well expose structural weaknesses that didn’t show up in Matthew. What Matthew did show was that light colored (cool roof) shingles had not sealed nearly as well as the darker colored shingles and that those homes with peel-and stick membranes fared well in terms of avoiding water damage. A storm up the spine of the peninsula will expose homes built to lesser requirements and without the same level of inspection and enforcement diligence that we associate with recent construction in coastal communities to high winds and may be a wakeup call for the middle of the state. A west coast track will expose a number of communities such as Tampa with lots of older construction to winds the area has not seen in decades or more. Tampa and Pinellas county , in particular, could suffer a great deal of damage because there has been little to weed out older poorly constructed and/or poorly maintained buildings. Also, there would be a significant amount of tree damage – also because of the lack of storms to weed out week trees."