Idalia hit one of Florida's poorest areas. How could that impact an economic recovery?
Florida’s Nature Coast, where Hurricane Idalia ripped through stands of pine and cedar trees, small towns and waterfront villages, is one of the poorest and least populated regions in the state. That may inhibit an economic rebound in the months ahead.
The area now is working to clean-up from the category 3 storm. Idalia came ashore Wednesday morning with winds up to 125 mph and at least 7 feet of storm surge. The area may struggle to bounce back even as state and federal resources help pick up the initial tab.
“The population characteristics in the impacted areas might impede their ability to recover,” said Maria D. Ilcheva with FIU’s Jorge Perez Metropolitan Center.
Many of the counties hit hardest by the storm have been outliers in Florida’s almost non-stop population growth. Taylor County was one of the few places to lose people between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. In a small county, every person counts. Taylor County lost 774 people last decade, but that was a 3.4% drop. The decrease was more pronounced in Madison, Lafayette, and Hamilton counties.
The low population is matched by low incomes compared to the rest of the state. Median household incomes are $15,000 to $20,000 below the state average of $61,000. About one in five are considered to be living in poverty.
Home values, which have been on a pandemic-induced tear for a couple of years throughout much of Florida, don’t reflect the land rush in many communities. Average existing home values hover around $100,000. That will complicate the financial calculation for those whose homes need substantial repairs or to be rebuilt. While price hikes of construction materials have cooled, they’re up 40% since the year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Housing values are low, but given construction costs these days, many probably will have a hard time rebuilding,” Ilcheva said.
The low population and low property values compared to the rest of the state means local governments have less financial resources to respond. A Major Disaster Declaration, which was declared on Aug. 31, provides some relief. It allows the federal government to fully reimburse for the cost of debris removal and security for 30 days.
The Big Bend area has experienced low unemployment like the rest of the state. Jobless rates are below 4% in counties where Idalia’s eye roared through. But they have some of the smallest labor forces in the state. Forestry, agriculture and healthcare are major industries. Georgia-Pacific Foley Cellulose mill in Perry dates back to 1954. Local slash pine trees are harvested to be processed into specialty fibers at the plant.
Public schools, local governments and the state Department of Corrections also employ a significant number of residents thanks to several state prisons in the region.
Most companies, though, are small – employing four or fewer people.
The Big Bend region is not a stranger to big storms. However, the most recent that rivaled Idalia was in 1896 and tore a path through north Florida. The death toll from that storm was estimated to be 100 as it brought a 10.5 foot storm surge to the Cedar Key area.
Damage from Idalia will be more significant than that from the 1896 story, even when adjusted for inflation. Early estimates range from $3 to $20 billion dollars across the four states that were in Idalia’s path. Reinsurance firm BMS said the industry “dodged a bullet” with Idalia. By comparison, Hurricane Ian’s insured losses topped $50 billion. It hit a much more densely populated area with higher property values.
Moody’s RMS puts the eventual insured loss between $3 billion and $5 billion. It figures there will be an additional $500 million in flood insurance claims. Florida has more flood insurance policies than any other state.
Insured losses from Idalia will include wind damage to homes and flooded-out cars and trucks. “Flooded vehicles are going to be a big number,” said Michael Barry with the Insurance Information Institute.
Idalia brought record-breaking water levels to several communities far away from the center of the storm. High seas were driven by the storm’s on-shore winds piling water up against the Gulf Coast and full moon high tides.
The geographic reach of the storm’s impact “showed the insurance industry that the effect can be far-reaching,” said BMS’s analysis.
Flood insurance claims, however, are not expected to be significant. According to a report days after the storm from BMS, “flood insurance has a low take-up rate across the path of Idalia, with inland counties seeing less than 5% take-up.”
The ultimate impact on the already troubled Florida home insurance market is unknown. That’s primarily because the storm season has a ways to go. The peak of storm activity in the Atlantic is Sept. 10. The hurricane season runs until Nov. 30, but storms can occur outside of the season.
How one business prepared and recovered
The Derifield family was able to get one of their businesses reopened for the Labor Day weekend in Steinhatchee, a small town about 20 miles south of where Idalia’s eye made landfall.
Gracie Derifield runs a small coffee shop. Her mom and dad, John and Brenda, own a taco stand. Both operate just two blocks from the Steinhatchee River and a short walk to where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. John figures the plot is about four feet above sea level. Provisional data from a nearby tidal gauge indicates the water rose to over 9.5 feet during the storm.
But the Derifield’s businesses are on wheels.
“I have the coffee camper. Theirs is the taco trailer,” Gracie told WLRN on Wednesday just a few hours after Idalia passed through. The Derifields pulled their trailers to their home on higher ground then spent the storm in Gainesville.
When they returned, a couple of feet of water still stood on the lot where they park their trailers for business. A small sitting area with a roof was still standing. A shed had floated off its foundation.
“I think I'm going to keep selling coffee out of Steinhatchee. No matter what happens, I know I have a community behind my back to help me build myself back up and they know that I'll do the same for them,” Gracie said.
They got to work washing off the concrete pad on Thursday. And by Friday, the chairs and tables had been brought out of storage and set-up again.
Brenda said they were borrowing electricity to make coffee. They were serving cold brew.
On the latest episode of The Florida Roundup, Tom Hudson and guests discussed the impacts of Hurricane Idalia on the state. You can listen to that episode here or wherever you get your podcasts.