In Storm Path: Coastal Boom ; Hurricanes Pose More of a Threat Than They Did 30 Years Ago Because of Population Growth

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As coastal residents from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle deal with the force of hurricane Ivan, experts say the unfolding drama illustrates a paradox in the nation's approach to hurricane protection.

While the ability to predict the path of hurricanes has greatly improved in recent decades, efforts to reduce the amount of destruction have not kept pace with forecasting advances. The result: Seaside residents are privy to the earliest and most accurate hurricane warnings ever, yet America's Southern shoreline has never been more vulnerable to large-scale storms.

At the same time, many of these coastal areas have more than doubled in population since the 1970s - and now, some 30 years later, the potential level of destruction could be up to five times higher. "We have made great strides in forecasting, but it has been outweighed by the large influx of population," says Stephen Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami.

Decades of explosive development on barrier islands and other coastal areas, and a lack of significant attention to the destructive force of hurricanes by residents and builders, have guaranteed that storm damage along the US coast from North Carolina to Texas is becoming increasingly costly, experts say.

With the US in the midst of one of the most active hurricane seasons in generations, these costs are suddenly apparent. In addition to the arrival of hurricane Ivan on the Gulf Coast, two other hurricanes, Charley and Frances, struck Florida within the past month. A fourth storm, Jeanne, could threaten Florida next week.

One major benefit of better hurricane forecasts is a greatly improved ability to evacuate the large numbers of residents now living in the most dangerous areas. In addition, analysts say officials are becoming highly skilled at responding to large-scale hurricane-related disasters.

But many experts say if current population trends continue, more must be done to prevent hurricane damage before storms strike. "People are more inclined to move to the most disaster-prone areas of the country - Florida, Texas, and California," says Bob Hartwig, chief economist with the Insurance Information Institute in New York. "Those states that have the greatest appeal for quality of life also happen to be the most dangerous to live in. But people don't think about that when they move there."

Mr. Hartwig says the area now being affected by hurricane Ivan was struck by hurricane Camille in 1969. That Category 5 storm, with wind gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour and a 22-foot tidal surge, virtually leveled the Mississippi town of Pass Christian. The violent landfall left more than 140 dead. "This was the most intense storm to ever hit the US mainland," he says. "It produced, at the time, $225 million in insured losses, which is $1.1 billion in current dollars."

Hartwig adds, "The same storm today would do four to five times as much damage as an equivalent storm 35 years ago. …