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Was Hurricane Frances Really So Costly?

March 21, 2013

By Paul Homewood



I ran a post yesterday on the Great Miami Hurricane, and referred to Roger Pielke’s work on comparing the relative  cost of damage caused by hurricanes since 1900. Roger’s abstract explains:-


This paper normalizes U.S. hurricane damage from 1900-2005 to 2005 values using two methodologies. A normalization provides an estimate of the damage that would occur if storms from the past made landfall under another year’s societal conditions. Our methods use changes in inflation and wealth at the national level and changes in population and housing units at the coastal county level. Across both normalization methods, there is no remaining trend of increasing absolute damage in the dataset, although 2004 and 2005 are large loss years.

The paper includes the following chart, showing the 30 most expensive storms under Roger’s methodology. Hurricane Frances, from 2004, came in at No 28, which intrigued me. I was there at the time and it did not seem anything other than a run of the mill Cat 2 hurricane.




Let’s start by putting things into perspective. Since 1900, there have been about 190 US landfalling hurricanes, including 69 major ones of Cat 3+. Could a Cat 2 really have cost more than so many other storms, many much more powerful.

There are a couple of points to note regarding Roger’s methodology, before we get stuck in :-

  1. The economic damage is only that sustained in the US itself, not for instance in Caribbean nations. 
  2. The analysis includes only Atlantic hurricanes.


Disney, Dolphins & Darryl’s

So, back to Frances and 2004. I will have to hold my hands up here, and admit that I was in Orlando at the time, rather than on the coast. Being 60 miles inland, Orlando is obviously protected from the worst of the hurricane, but, nevertheless, it was on the direct path.

Everything shut down for two days, but the only damage we saw was a few broken branches. Most Brits agreed that we would see worse storms back home every winter.

But for a more objective view, let’s look at what the National Hurricane Centre has to say.


Steering currents weakened as Frances reached the northwestern Bahamas due to a high pressure ridge building west of the cyclone. This caused storm moved slowly westward across the Gulf Stream on 4 September. The shear weakened, which allowed slight re-intensification over the Gulf Stream, followed by slight weakening just before Frances made landfall over the southern end of Hutchinson Island, Florida near 0430 UTC 5 September as a Category 2 hurricane. Frances gradually weakened as it moved slowly west-northwestward across the Florida Peninsula, and became a tropical storm just before emerging into the northeastern Gulf of Mexico near New Port Richey early on 6 September.

Frances did not strengthen over the Gulf, with maximum sustained winds remaining 50-55 kt with a pressure near 982 mb. It moved northwestward and made a final landfall near the mouth of the Aucilla River in the Florida Big Bend region about 1800 UTC 6 September. The northwestward motion continued until 7 September, when Frances re-curved northeastward into the westerlies over eastern Alabama and western Georgia. Frances weakened to a tropical depression early on 7 September and then became extratropical over West Virginia early on 9 September. As an extratropical cyclone, Frances briefly had gale-force winds as it accelerated northeastward across New York later on 9 September. The cyclone turned eastward across northern New England and southeastern Canada, dissipating over the Gulf of St. Lawrence late on 10 September.

So nothing extraordinary there. A simple Cat 2, no unusual storm surge, and it did not even hit land at a built up area such as Miami. What about the casualty and damage statistics?


Frances is directly responsible for seven deaths – five in Florida, one in the Bahamas, and one in Ohio. Three deaths were caused by wind, two by storm surge, one by freshwater flooding, and one by lightning. The hurricane is indirectly responsible for 42 deaths – 32 in Florida, 8 in Georgia, 1 in the Bahamas, and 1 in Ohio.

The American Insurances Service Group reports that Frances causes $4.43 billion in damage to insured property in the United States, with $4.11 billion occurring in Florida. Applying a two-to-one ratio to this figure to account for damage to uninsured property yields a damage estimate of $8.86 billion. Additionally, space and military facilities in the Cape Canaveral area reported over $100 million dollars in property damage. Therefore, the best estimate of the total property damage from Frances is $9 billion, which in terms of unadjusted damage makes Frances the fourth most costly hurricane in United States history behind Andrew of 1992, and Charley and Ivan of 2004. This total does not include agricultural or economic losses.

Wikipedia fills in some of the detail.


Near the point of its first landfall, few structures were destroyed and ocean overwash across the barrier island was limited, though the extent of the damage far exceeded that of Hurricane Charley. Wind damage to citrus groves led to a near total loss near the coast of east-central Florida between West Palm Beach and Melbourne, with lesser damage farther to the west across the Kissimmee River basin. Between Hurricane Charley and Frances, citrus losses totalled $2 billion (2004 dollars). Significant tree damage was reported within golf courses along the Treasure Coast, with an average of 300-500 trees experiencing damage per course.

Some areas of Florida received over 13 inches (330 mm) of rain as the system moved slowly through the state. Heavy rains caused a large sinkhole to develop on Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County, which closed the highway to traffic. Similar to Hurricane Charley earlier in the month, the Florida citrus crops took large amounts of damage. Frances caused heavy damage to the large Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, ripping off over a thousand 4-by-10 foot aluminium panels used to clad the building. While Charley caused $700,000 damage (2004 dollars), Frances damage was significantly greater. Two external fuel tanks for the space shuttle were in the building but seem undamaged. The Space Shuttle Discovery‘s hangar was without power. The total damage to space and military facilities around Cape Canaveral, Florida was reported at about $100 million (2004 dollars). Orlando, Florida‘s theme parks closed Sunday — only the third time Walt Disney World closed for a hurricane, but the second time in a month.


Certainly the heavy rain would have caused damage, but most hurricanes leave behind similar problems. Wind damage seems to have been remarkably light, other than the tree damage mentioned (and remember, agricultural losses are not factored in). Since nearly all the insured damage occurred in Florida, the storm cannot have had much effect further north.


Which all rather leads onto the question – are we still underestimating the costs of hurricanes in the past, even after allowing for inflation and the other considerations that Pielke factors in?

This suspicion becomes even stronger when you consider that Charley, the hurricane that hit Florida in the previous month, appears at No. 16 on the list.

It is difficult to believe that Frances really caused so much more damage than most of the hurricanes, that preceded it during the 20thC, would have done had they hit in 2004. Does the Pielke methodology fully allow for the economic and demographic changes that have taken place in the last century?

  1. March 21, 2013 7:30 pm

    Reblogged this on Climate Ponderings.

  2. Brian H permalink
    March 22, 2013 3:51 am

    I think an inflation correction is inadequate; buildup of assets occurs much more rapidly and in tight concentrations, which multiplies costs.

  3. Andy DC permalink
    March 22, 2013 11:12 am

    Being familiar with both hurricanes and the insurance industry, I believe there is a recent factor grossly inflating damage totals in hurricanes. Until fairly recently, if you lost a couple shingles from your roof, the damage was repaired and you got replacement shingles. If you lost a couple strips of siding, you got replacement siding. The match with the old roofing/siding might not be perfect, but with time and weathering the old and new would normally blend in quite nicely.

    Within the past couple of decades, there have been consumer complaints about the lack of a perfect match. Some state and local insurance commissions started granting the public some satisfaction concerning these complaints. If you lost a couple shingles, you could get a completely new roof. Same for siding. If you lost both, the house could be considered a total loss.

    It took some time for the public to wise up about this new “entitlement”. But once residents saw that neighbors were getting complete replacement from their insurance company, they demanded same from their’s as well.

    So you can see how this recent development has greatly inflated insurance costs for even relatively minor hurricanes.

    Some of the most absurd cases I am familiar with are from hail. You might have a couple of pock marks that are barely visible to the siding but the homeowner is entitled to all new siding all the way around the house.

    • GH05T permalink
      August 30, 2013 3:30 pm

      Thank you for filling in a hole in my understanding of this matter. I also wonder how much insurance plan participation has increased over the decades. It seems to me that if people couldn’t afford replacement or repair then the damage just didn’t get calculated. Where are the numbers for uninsured damage that people had to save up for months/years to replace? When I was young and only had liability on my car, if it got badly damaged but was still drivable, I’d just keep driving it damaged. I used red tape to cover a hole in a tail light for 3 years before I had enough extra cash to replace it.

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