After hurricanes, when to rebuild and when to retreat

Is this hurricane season a tipping point?

A flooded trailer park is seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Arcadia, Florida, U.S., October 4, 2022.
A flooded trailer park is seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Arcadia, Florida, United States, on October 4, 2022 [Marco Bello/Reuters]

There are tough questions about rebuilding in the United States after Hurricane Ian in Florida and Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico. In Florida, the damage is in the tens of billions of dollars, and a crisis for insurance companies means that recovery will only be more difficult. So how do you decide when it is better not to rebuild, but to start again somewhere else?

In this episode: 

  • Jesse M. Keenan (@Jesse_M_Keenan), Associate professor of sustainable real estate, Tulane University
  • Fernando Rivera (@Prof_Rivera), Professor of sociology, University of Central Florida

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions. Our email is 

Halla Mohieddeen: The death toll from Hurricane Ian in the US state of Florida is now more than 100 people, and the scale of the damage is hard to grasp.

Newsreel: A once-in-a-1,000-year rainfall, they’re calling it. 

Newsreel: The storm surge was record-breaking and deadly.

Newsreel: The flooding not just on the coast but, of course, inland too. 

Newsreel: One hundred and fifty mph (241km/h) winds lashing the coast, just two mph (3.22km/h) short of the most devastating category: five.

Halla Mohieddeen: And hundreds of thousands of people are still without power. Ian has fallen right in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season. Just 10 days earlier, another part of the US was hit: the territory of Puerto Rico. Both Florida and Puerto Rico have their own questions to face about their recovery and rebuilding, but there’s one that has no good answer: How do you decide when it’s better not to rebuild, but to start over somewhere else? I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.


Halla Mohieddeen: I’m talking first with Jesse Keenan at Tulane University. He’s an expert on climate and real estate. It’s a research area that involves some uncomfortable truths about the impact we’re having on the environment.

Jesse Keenan: I can’t tell people what I do. When we go to dinner parties, I just stay quiet. I try to avoid having conversations with anyone actually.


Halla Mohieddeen: Jesse is in the state of Louisiana now, but he grew up all over the East Coast of the US, including in nearby Georgia. He grew up preparing for tropical storms, including one that flooded most of the city where he lived, killed  at least 31 people and forced the evacuation of more than 50,000.

Jesse Keenan: Twenty-six inches [660mm] of rain in 24 hours. It was an enormous, enormous tragedy that I witnessed firsthand, and I think it influenced me in ways that I can’t fully appreciate. But when we were younger and we had hurricanes and tropical storms, it was about preparation. It was about having backup water, lights, you know, candles, food or a hand-cranked radio. And the idea was that we could just hunker down, as the expression would go in Georgia, and endure it.

Halla Mohieddeen: But he says that’s not the conversation now.

Jesse Keenan: Today, that conversation is about evacuation. Where do we go? How long are we going to be gone, and how many months or years will it be before we return home? That’s the conversation that millions and millions of Americans have now.

Halla Mohieddeen: So, tell us what’s played out with Hurricane Ian in Florida, and to some extent Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico, because they dumped an awful lot of rain.

Jesse Keenan: So, in the context of just rain and precipitation, these storms are benefiting from increased sea surface temperatures. So we have climate change. That’s global warming. We’re trapping additional heat, and that heat and energy for the most part is disproportionately, let’s say, getting absorbed in the oceans and in the upper portion of the oceans.

And when a tropical system or cyclone or a hurricane comes over, it literally is translating that energy, in the form of heat in the upper boundary of the ocean, into greater intensity and greater precipitation as well.

Halla Mohieddeen: This was Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico.

Newsreel: Thirty-two inches or 800mm, essentially a year’s worth of rainfall in what you would see in London, played out here in the span of 24 hours,

Jesse Keenan: So, what we see with these storms and with Hurricane Ian and Fiona and Hurricane Ida last year, which by the way, blew a good portion of our roof off, we see a lot of extreme precipitation, and we also see a very rapid intensification.

Halla Mohieddeen: Jesse says it’s that rapid intensification that’s a real novelty in the face of climate change.

Jesse Keenan: Because these storms intensify so quickly, it really challenges a lot of the existing conventions in terms of risk management and disaster planning that often have benefited from maybe a week’s notice of roughly where the storm was gonna go down to a few days’ notice. And now we’re talking about making really critical decisions, as we saw with Hurricane Ian, as it shifted from going, let’s say, from Tampa closer to Fort Myers in just a matter of hours.

Hurricane Ian makes its way to Florida's west coast after passing Cuba in a composite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) GOES-East weather satellite September 27, 2022.
Hurricane Ian makes its way to Florida’s west coast after passing Cuba in a composite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) GOES-East weather satellite September 27, 2022. [NOAA/Handout/Reuters]


Halla Mohieddeen: That shift that Jesse’s talking about is a last minute swing in the path of the hurricane. It was expected to hit the city of Tampa, but the hurricane went south at the last minute.

Newsreel: The eye of the storm made its much dreaded landfall south of us this afternoon. Blasting ashore near Cayo Costa, its fierce wind spinning at nearly 150mph (241km/h). 

Halla Mohieddeen:  Tampa dodged the worst of the storm. It was in good enough shape by Sunday to have the electricity to host a football game.

Newsreel: Off we go from Tampa and from a couple deep, White’s gonna bring it back. 

Halla Mohieddeen: Well, let’s talk about the city of Tampa in Florida because it’s been lucky many times before in dodging hurricanes.

Newsreel: Go away, Ian. That’s a message from Tampa Bay area residents, who have not taken a direct hit from a hurricane in 100 years. 

Halla Mohieddeen: A World Bank study once called the Tampa Bay area one of the most high-risk metropolitan regions in the world. What are the factors that we should know about, would you say?


Jesse Keenan: Tampa has benefited from a fluke of luck where many storms that are coming in are on the counterclockwise rotation of the winds, in recent years, recent decades, have actually operated to blow the water out of Tampa Bay.

Newsreel: This eerie video shows the water that usually makes up Tampa Bay sucked out to sea ahead of the storm.

Jesse Keenan: But eventually, it’s only a matter of time. A storm will either hit directly or just north of Tampa. It has just been a fluke of luck that they haven’t been hit by a storm to date, but their luck will run out.

Halla Mohieddeen: This time, the luck ran out further south on the peninsula in new areas of development, an area near the city of Fort Myers. Much of that area has grown up in the last two decades as Florida’s population and real estate development have boomed. Florida had a major storm 30 years ago called Hurricane Andrew that had a big impact on how it builds, and new buildings have to meet stringent standards. But where people build – that’s another story.


Jesse Keenan: They made a lot of decisions about where that growth would go that would yield somewhat disastrous impacts later on with a concentration of density in very high-risk areas. But it was exacerbated by a gradual deregulation in recent years, culminating in the past decade with deregulation that allowed really almost unfettered growth often into very high high-risk areas. And if you think about it, it sort of makes sense. You need a lot of housing and more affordable housing for people. You go where the land is the cheapest, and the cheapest land, historically, has been in the wetlands and the swamps and the like. So deregulation didn’t help and certainly made the problem worse.

Halla Mohieddeen: And now Jesse says hurricanes are now growing large enough to really impact the future of Florida’s development. Real estate prices have gone up and down with storms over the years, and while Florida has bounced back every time so far, the future could be different.

Jesse Keenan: You know, when we’re talking about buyers and sellers sort of discounting the value or future value of housing, that just assume that the housing can be reconstructed or rebuilt or somehow recover. But in many of these places, recovery will simply not be an economically feasible option.


Halla Mohieddeen: Hurricane Ian is predicted to be one of the costliest hurricanes ever with a damage estimate as high as $75bn. That’s equivalent to the GDP of Guatemala. A big chunk of that money will be paid out by private insurance companies along with the federal government. But the writing is on the wall: Florida is no longer a state where those companies can make a profit. And Hurricane Ian, Jesse predicts along with many others, will be the death blow to Florida’s property insurance market. To understand why, you have to know how it ended up on life support in the first place. The first thing is that in the US, insurance is usually sold in a piecemeal way – and that was an opportunity for insurers in Florida.

Jesse Keenan: There’s wind insurance, there’s flood insurance, there’s property insurance.

Newsreel: How do you determine if something is damaged that it’s caused by flood versus wind when you’re talking about a hurricane?

Jesse Keenan: In the context of hurricanes, wind insurance is probably the most difficult conversation to have. This is wind when you know, literally the wind from the hurricane blows your roof off or blows out your windows. After Hurricane Andrew, which happened 30 years ago this year, the insurance companies said, “You know what? This is too much risk. We’re no longer ensuring hurricanes through wind insurance. We’re backing out of the state. We’re going to continue to write other forms of insurance like property insurance, but we’re out of the wind insurance market.”

Halla Mohieddeen: But in the US, insurance is regulated by individual states, and the state of Florida wouldn’t let them jump ship entirely.

Jesse Keenan: State regulators said, “Well, you know what? You’re not going anywhere. If you still want to write car insurance or boat insurance in the state, you’re going to need to, you know, underwrite and offer some form of insurance.”

Halla Mohiedden: So the insurers and the state made a compromise. They created one taxpayer-funded option for people to buy wind insurance, an insurer of last resort, and its rates were subsidised.

A flooded trailer park is seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Arcadia, Florida, U.S., October 4, 2022.
A flooded trailer park is seen after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Arcadia, Florida, U.S., October 4, 2022. [Marco Bello/Reuters]


Jesse Keenan: Because if you actually charge the true risk rate, it would be way too expensive for many people. And it would, of course, then kill the housing economy, kill the real estate economy and undermine the property taxes that drive Florida.

Halla Mohieddeen: In other words, if you charge the true market rate, the market says, “The risk is unaffordable.” Until now, the state has subsidised that cost, but now the bill is coming due.

Newsreel: Lawmakers say Florida’s private property insurance market has collapsed. The situation is being described as a crisis. 

Newsreel: Insurers are going bankrupt. Others are cancelling policies and raising their rates.

Jesse Keenan: I mean, insurance is the foundation to modern financial economics. You’re shifting and sharing risk. There will be many places that will not be able to get insurance in the future. There’s many people that won’t be able to get insurance in the future. And guess what? You need insurance if you borrow money and have a mortgage on your property, for instance. Will insurance companies be able to pay out? Some won’t, and some will go under.

Halla Mohieddeen: And when that happens, Jesse says, the state will have to take over the policies.

Jesse Keenan: In Louisiana, 10 insurance companies went under, and the state had to take on tens of thousands of policies. Same thing’s going to happen in Florida. And will we be able to get this insurance in the future? Again, yes and no. Depends for whom and at what price. And by the way, many people don’t even have insurance. Very large percentages of populations, exceeding 50% in some parts of the state, don’t even have flood insurance.

Halla Mohieddeen: Oh gosh, that’s frightening. That’s absolutely – that means a lot of people have just literally lost everything.

Jesse Keenan: For 60% of the households in the United States, our homes are our largest single financial asset. And many, many people in this area, their wealth essentially has just evaporated.

Halla Mohieddeen: Oh, my goodness. How awful. Well, this all begs the question, really, some individuals must be throwing up their hands. They’re not thinking about recovery anymore. They must be thinking about moving away. Where are they going?

Jesse Keenan: Well, after disasters, people do move. After Hurricane Andrew 30 years ago, just south of Miami in Miami-Dade County, tens of thousands of people moved overnight and never came back. People tend to move within the region because they want to maintain connections with family, friends and labour connections and resources, so people tend not to move too far, but indeed, people will go all throughout the country.

Halla Mohieddeen: But the difference now, Jesse says, is that leaving will become less about individual choices.

Newsreel: Millions of Americans live on a coast, but a new report says sea levels could rise as much as a foot [0.3m] within 30 years. That means coastal cities could flood even on sunny days.

Jesse Keenan: I think what we see here now is really the first of its kind signal that it’s not just people and consumer preferences that are slowly shifting. We’re seeing the impetus of the economy itself beginning to make priorities about where to live, and I think that’s going to speed things up in a way that we’re not prepared for.

Halla Mohieddeen: To understand the future of where that conversation might go, there’s another part of the United States to look at – after the break.

A U.S. flag is seen in a flooded rural area after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Arcadia, Florida, U.S., October 4, 2022.
A U.S. flag is seen in a flooded rural area after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Arcadia, Florida, U.S., October 4, 2022. [Marco Bello/Reuters]


Halla Mohieddeen: The territory of Puerto Rico faced its own hurricane, Fiona, just 10 days before Hurricane Ian. And extreme weather has become one of the drivers of migration to the mainland US. The bellwether was in 2017 with Hurricane Maria.

Newsreel: The satellite image tonight showing Maria’s massive size dwarfing the island. No part of it was spared.

Newsreel: The emergency management director saying the entire island is destroyed. Many of these homes not built to withstand any hurricane, let alone a category four.

Fernando Rivera: A little bit of panic did set in. A lot of people started leaving the island.

Halla Mohieddeen: Fernando Rivera is a sociologist at the University of Central Florida. We heard from him on Monday after he got his power back on near the city of Orlando.

Fernando Rivera: Whoever could get an air flight out of Puerto Rico did.

Newsreel: Heading to the US mainland is the only option for many. 

Newsreel: One study estimates more than 470,000 people will leave Puerto Rico over two years.

Halla Mohieddeen: Fernando studied the impact of climate migration on receiving communities. Florida is home to the most Puerto Ricans outside Puerto Rico, and he saw that accelerate after Maria.

Fernando Rivera: Estimates from 200,000 all the way to 400,000, not only to Florida but other states throughout the nation as well. And they were leaving the island primarily because there was no power, there was no running water. It became almost intolerable for a lot of people, especially for the ones that had some type of health issues, to stay on the island.

Halla Mohieddeen: At the time, Hurricane Maria was what used to be called a generational storm, one where the recovery takes years. But years of corruption and neglect by both the US government and the government of Puerto Rico meant it took a year just to restore the electricity to every household that lost it. Puerto Rico’s recovery has been delayed and tumultuous, including battles over aid from the Trump administration, an uprising in 2019 that ousted its governor and the privatisation of the power company – not to mention the pandemic. So that’s what the people had to face last month, five hurricane seasons later.

Cars drive under a downed power pole in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico September 21, 2022.
Cars drive under a downed power pole in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico September 21, 2022. [Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters]


Fernando Rivera: Sadly, for a lot of Puerto Ricans, they woke up on September 20, 2017, after Hurricane Maria without power and electricity. And ironically enough, and sadly enough, September 20, 2022, they also wake up with no power and no electricity.

Newsreel: The flooding in Puerto Rico is catastrophic.

Newsreel: The entire island losing all electricity.

Newsreel: Entire towns underwater, people on rooftops. 

Newsreel: Residents are frustrated and scared.

Halla Mohieddeen: Hurricane Fiona flooded the island with an incredible amount of rain, but that was in combination with Puerto Rico being hit by a disaster before it had a chance to recover from the last one. And that’s what raises the question of climate migration. More and more, regions are going to be hosting evacuees – or refugees – from one disaster while preparing for disasters of their own.

Fernando Rivera: So we had Hurricane Fiona going through Puerto Rico on September 18 of this year, and then just days after, we have Hurricane Ian hitting the state of Florida as well. I still have a lot of family and friends in Puerto Rico, and obviously, they were very concerned about what was happening here with Hurricane Ian. And I was worried for them also when Hurricane Fiona hit the island. And it was heartbreaking for me to tell them that, hey, I lost power, but I got it back in 30 hours. Two weeks after the storm, still I have some friends and family that don’t have running water and don’t have power.

Halla Mohieddeen: Even though both are facing hurricanes, leaving your home in Puerto Rico to move to Florida is, in its own unfortunate way, a privilege. Florida has a GDP of more than $1 trillion. Puerto Rico’s is just a tenth of that. So the question I asked Jesse is how much – or really how soon – people are willing to admit where the future is leading.

Halla Mohieddeen: And what about people themselves? I mean, I’m standing here in a very cold house in Glasgow, and the idea of living somewhere sunny by the sea still appeals to me, even after the conversation we’ve been having. But the science is clear. These hurricanes are gonna keep getting stronger. These storms are gonna keep getting worse. It’s quite frightening, no? How do you envisage this future panning out?

Jesse Keenan: Well, it’s interesting that you, you talk about your own preference for sunshine. I think what we will see is that living in the sunshine will just come at a greater and greater cost.

Hurricane Fiona advances towards Canada's Maritimes provinces in a composite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) GOES-East weather satellite September 23, 2022.
Hurricane Fiona advances towards Canada’s Maritimes provinces in a composite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) GOES-East weather satellite September 23, 2022. [NOAA/Handout/Reuters]


Jesse Keenan: Our coasts are becoming depopulated, but the people who remain are wealthier and wealthier and wealthier because they can afford to take the losses from the storms. They don’t need insurance in many cases.

Halla Mohieddeen: But Jesse says now is the time that governments will have to decide where to invest – and where to disinvest.

Jesse Keenan: It would take generations and generations to rebuild what has been lost, so the question is, what are you going to rebuild and what are you going to protect? And those are very difficult decisions that we would think would be determined through democratic processes. But the reality is that the market economy is gonna make those decisions for us, and that’s going to further measures of inequality and marginalisation on levels that we have never known.

Halla Mohieddeen: But there is one opportunity in the destruction. Rebuilding doesn’t have to repeat the same decisions that led to the climate crisis, and people have more access to information they need to move where they’ll be safe – if they have the resources.

Jesse Keenan: If there’s a measure of optimism, it’s a limited one, to the extent that you can get accessible, consumer-level information about what your risk may be in the future, and that helps shape decisions. So we as a society are adapting. Actually, we’ve adapted since the dawn of human civilisation to environmental change because guess what? The environment has changed in the course of our existence. So nothing new here, but I think in contemporary terms, in the modern society that we live in, we are using that information to shape our behaviour. The question is, who do we leave behind? And I think that’s the impetus of much of the work going forward.

Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Chloe K. Li, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, Ashish Malhotra, Ruby Zaman and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Tim St. Clair mixed this episode. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou Gad are our engagement producers, and Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. We’ll be back on Friday.

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Alexandra Locke with Chloe K. Li and our host, Halla Moheiddeen. Chloe K. Li and Ashish Malhotra fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Tim St Clair mixed this episode. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

Source: Al Jazeera