Partners, Volume 15, Number 3, 2005

Hurricane Recovery in Florida: What the 2004 Storms Taught Us

On August 28, 2005, Florida residents experienced an uncomfortable mixture of feelings: one was relief that a hurricane was going to miss us; the other, which followed immediately, was guilt because we knew others would be hit. After the devastating hurricane season we faced in 2004, however, it is perhaps understandable that we were still reeling from the aftermath of a succession of disastrous storms.

Though we are only one year into the disaster recovery process, what have we learned about rebuilding that might be of use to our neighbors in Louisiana and Mississippi?

Our experience has been that recovery takes time, money and expertise. It has also been important to have a statewide affordable housing trust in place to meet the needs of very low- and low-income families.

Succession of hurricanes in 2004 wreak havoc
Florida experienced four major storms in a two-month period in 2004. On August 13, Hurricane Charlie went roaring across the state, entering in Charlotte County as a Category 4 storm and exiting through Palm Beach County. Insured losses were estimated at $6.7 billion.

Hurricane Frances (Category 2) came to visit on September 5, blowing in over the southern end of Hutchinson Island and causing $4.1 billion in insured losses as it tracked across the state.

Just a few hurricanes later Ivan bullied its way through the Panhandle, leaving insured losses in its wake estimated over $4 billion. Although weary of watching the Weather Channel, we were all glued to it one more time on September 25, when it was Jeanne’s turn: this Category 3 storm hit Florida only two miles from the point where Frances made landfall.

All in all, the 2004 Florida hurricane season damaged or destroyed over 708,000 housing units and left over $21 billion in property damage. Hidden within those numbers is an incalculable loss of older, affordable market-rate housing, along with the displacement of the tens of thousands of poor households who called that housing home.

While the suffering in each of these storms was widespread, the poorest families suffered uniquely and most severely. It was their housing that was least likely to withstand the pressures of the storms. Elderly homeowners often had no insurance and few (or no) resources to rebuild.

Recovery takes time
Families who have had their homes damaged or destroyed by a hurricane understandably want them repaired as quickly as possible so that life can return to normal. Unfortunately, while hurricanes do their damage in a matter of hours, rebuilding takes months, and sometimes years.

Our housing market, for example, produces a certain amount of building material each year on the basis of historical demand. When major hurricanes damaged hundreds of thousands of units, the producers could not flip a switch to instantly meet the hugely increased demand for building materials. As a result, homeowners had to wait.

Builders also hit limits to their capacity. A sudden increase in demand does not allow adequate time to add the skilled labor needed to increase production. Efforts to speed up the rebuilding by taking shortcuts in the development process often result in communities overpaying for substandard work.

Higher construction prices ratchet up subsidies for affordable housing
According to developers working throughout the state, construction prices skyrocketed after the storms, and as of November 2005 they had yet to fall. Between spring 2004 and fall 2005, the cost of construction in Florida’s panhandle rose from $65 per square foot to $95 per square foot. In southwest Florida the prices rose from $90 per square foot to $125 per square foot. Southeast Florida saw similar increases, with prices rising from $95 to $130 per square foot.

Needless to say, during this time incomes did not rise at the same rate. As a result, the assistance required to subsidize housing has risen dramatically compared to pre-storm amounts.

Local government purchase-assistance programs that helped low-income families with subsidies of $15,000 to $20,000 before the storm are now finding that it takes closer to $100,000 to assist families earning similar incomes. The days of rehabilitating a home for $25,000 are also gone, and many local government programs have had to spend $40,000 to $50,000 per unit.

Recovery takes expertise
Florida’s housing trust fund has equipped every county—both urban and rural—with the capacity to accept and process applications for rehabilitation and purchase assistance programs. Some counties actually implement these programs, and others also fund rental development.

The state also has a very well-developed technical assistance delivery system through the “Affordable Housing Catalyst,” which is funded by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation and implemented by the Florida Housing Coalition (Coalition). A portion of the state’s housing trust fund also supports the program.

The Coalition’s technical assistance includes workshops and on-site, one-on-one training as well as deal-specific instruction. The workshops present a core curriculum for those new to the affordable housing field and provide an advanced curriculum for those with more experience.

Since the Coalition’s staff includes housing professionals with a training background, they are able to quickly develop and present effective training on the rules of the new hurricane program as well as provide information on how local governments should design their programs and strategies to best meet the needs of hurricane victims. In addition to these workshops, the staff has continued to offer one-on-one assistance as local governments implement their recovery strategies.

Regrettably, there is no way to rebuild a community as fast as a hurricane destroys it. However, communities can rebuild with time, money and expertise. Florida’s experience shows that a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing and an established infrastructure for spending the funds can be valuable components of hurricane recovery efforts.

This article was written by Stan Fitterman, senior technical advisor at the Florida Housing Coalition.

Previous Article | Return to Index | Next Article