Miami is the most connected city in America, a place where the entire economy is geared toward the next big banking deal, real-estate deal, drug deal. As Wayne Pathman, a land-use attorney in Miami, put it to me, “The biggest question for the future of Miami is how investors will react when they understand the risks of sea-level rise.” The rivers of cash that are flowing into the city right now are pretty clear evidence that few investors are worried about that risk. Brickell, the hot new neighborhood where the $1 billion Brickell CityCentre, one of the biggest new developments in the city, is currently under construction, is a few blocks from the water – streets are already nearly impassable during big storms. “It’s partly denial and ignorance, and partly a feeling that they can beat the odds,” says Tony Cho, the president of Metro1 Properties Inc., a large real-estate firm in Miami.
One thing that may change that is insurance rates. After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, many large insurers stopped offering property coverage in the state, citing the high risks of hurricane insurance. That left Florida in a dangerous position, with only small regional insurers to underwrite storm coverage for homeowners. But in the event of a large storm, the small insurers don’t have sufficient capital to cover the claims they would receive. To remedy the situation, the state began offering its own low-cost insurance under the name Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, which has become the largest insurer in the state. By subsidizing insurance, lawmakers hoped to keep costs down and development booming. The problem is, Florida is now on the hook for billions of dollars. “A single big storm could bankrupt the state,” says Eli Lehrer, an insurance expert and president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Flood insurance is likely to skyrocket, too. The National Flood Insurance Program is currently more than $20 billion in debt, thanks to payouts related to Hurricane Sandy and other extreme-weather events. In 2012, Congress passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act, which jacks the price of insurance up for people living in known flood zones. More reforms of this sort are sure to come. For a place like Miami, where virtually the entire city is a flood zone, the economic costs could be in the hundreds of billions.
The financial catastrophe could play out like this: As insurance rates climb, fewer are able to afford homes. Housing prices fall, which slows development, which decreases the tax base, which makes cities and towns even less able to afford the infrastructure upgrades necessary to adapt to rising seas. The spiral continues downward. Beaches deteriorate, hotels sit empty, restaurants close. Because Miami’s largest economies are development and tourism, it’s a deadly tailspin. The threat of sea-level rise bankrupts the state even before it is wiped out by a killer storm.