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Will Hurricane Ian Sour Retirees on Florida Coast?

Experts say destructive storm unlikely to slow relocations but urge transplants to plan for disasters

spinner image Palm trees on stormy beach flattened by strong winds in Florida hurricane
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When Aaron Borovoy and his husband, Peter Ambrose, moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, from California six months ago, the retirees settled in a mobile home park and began to enjoy life along the Gulf Coast.

“It’s a beautiful place,” says Borovoy, 61. “There’s a lot to love about Florida.”

But the mood suddenly changed when Hurricane Ian bore down on the Gulf Coast in late September. “Here it is on the news — we’re, like, dead center where the hurricane was coming,” Ambrose, 57, recalls.

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Fearing a massive traffic backup of residents fleeing the storm, the couple left six hours before local authorities issued the official evacuation warning. They packed their travel trailer, hitched it to their truck and found refuge in Louisiana. Leaving behind their new home was hard, they say, especially not knowing if it would be there when they returned.

“We might have come back just to survey the damage,” Borovoy says.

In the end, Ian did relatively little damage to St. Petersburg, instead inflicting much of its estimated $67 billion in destruction upon communities to the south, such as Fort Myers and Naples. But the emergency was a reminder that relocating to coastal Florida in retirement means learning to live with the threat of hurricanes.  

Even so, it seems to be a risk many retirees and snowbirds are willing to take, in exchange for the chance to enjoy the warm, sunny climate and proximity to water.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to say, oh my gosh, there could be hurricanes, and nobody’s moving to Florida,” says Ken Johnson, a housing economist and professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Well, the evidence flies in the face of that. Hurricanes have been striking Florida way before any of us were alive, and people still have been moving here in massive numbers.”

A recent U.S. Census Bureau study found that between 2015 and 2019 — a period that saw hurricanes Irma and Michael cut swaths of destruction through the state — Florida drew an influx of 109,200 people 65 and older and a net gain of 53,150 residents in that age group — more than twice the gain in Arizona, the next most popular destination for the 65-plus.

Johnson says hurricanes have not affected housing demand and developers quickly rebuild in hard-hit communities. “There already are anecdotal stories coming out of the Fort Myers area, where people are showing up and wanting to buy lots” in devastated areas, he adds.

Storms affect market, housing costs

Even if Ian doesn’t deter retirees from moving to Florida, its effects could make relocation more challenging. Storm damage will likely shrink an already tight housing market, and the need to rebuild along the Gulf Coast will divert resources from construction elsewhere in the state, where Johnson says builders already can’t keep up with demand.

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“It’s not as reasonable living in Florida as it used to be,” he says. Some retirees are opting instead to relocate to places such as Alabama, Mississippi and the Gulf Coast of Texas, he adds, where “the cost of living is significantly less and you still have those nice warm climates, and you’re near water.”

Hurricane risk drives up housing costs for Florida transplants in other ways. “Anyone retiring from the northeastern or midwestern states will pay more homeowners insurance and should factor that in when determining whether to move to Florida,” Loretta Worters, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute, says in an email.

Florida residents pay the highest homeowners insurance rates in the country: an average of $4,231 this year, nearly three times the U.S. average of $1,544, according to Worters.

Worse yet, many people mistakenly assume their homeowner’s insurance covers flooding, only to find out that they aren’t protected. “It’s particularly distressing for retirees who are on a fixed income and don’t prepare financially by purchasing flood insurance,” which is available through the National Flood Insurance Program and some private insurers, Worters says.

Disaster planning a ‘critical need’

As a native Floridian, Sue Anne Bell understands why hurricane threats don’t deter retirees from flocking to her former home state. But the University of Michigan School of Nursing assistant professor says creating a plan should be a part of such moves.

“Planning for these challenges in the event of an emergency really is a critical need for older adults,” especially those with age-related disabilities or chronic health conditions that could complicate a quick evacuation, says Bell, whose work focuses on disaster preparedness and response, via email.

She recommends taking these steps:

  • Talk to your doctor about how to ensure your health care needs are met in the wake of a disaster
  • Follow state and local authorities, such as the Florida Division of Emergency Management, on social media or smartphone apps to keep up with changing conditions and evacuation notices
  • Communicate your emergency plans in advance to loved ones and neighbors

And she strongly cautions against sheltering in place, as reluctant as retirees may be to leave behind their homes and treasured possessions.

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“Staying at home during a major hurricane such as Ian [with] dangerous flooding, extreme rainfall, storm surge and powerful winds is inherently dangerous,” as is remaining in damaged neighborhoods that lack power and other infrastructure, she says.

“Some people do stay and take that risk, and as we have seen with Hurricane Ian, those risks were deadly in some cases.”

But even those retirees who evacuate may accept the risk of hurricanes as a trade-off for the upsides of life in Florida, the same way Californians grow accustomed to the risk of earthquakes and wildfires.

Borovoy and Ambrose were able to return home to St. Petersburg a few days after Ian. Despite the close call, they’re still planning to stay.

“If you’re scared of hurricanes, you’re probably not going to be coming here anyway,” Borovoy says. “If it didn’t deter you, this isn’t the last one."​​

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