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Published: Mar 19, 2019 7 min read
Powerful Hurricane Irma Slams Into Florida
A car is seen in a flooded street as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Florida, with its plentiful beaches, warm weather, and lack of a state-income tax, is the most popular destination for older adults in the U.S. But some who have lived in the Sunshine State for years are moving in the opposite direction.

As damaging storms and other effects of climate change have hit Florida particularly hard in the past few years, some older adults living there have become concerned about their safety and their ability to enjoy retirement. So they’re fleeing this otherwise balmy state.

About 52,630 people ages 65 and over left Florida in 2017, versus 48,174 in 2016 and 43,356 in 2012, according to Jon Rork, professor of Economics at Reed College in Portland, Oregan, who studies retirement migration. “Many of these people have left Florida for states like Georgia and North Carolina,” Rork says. “There’s a hypothesis that those who have left Florida for Georgia and North Carolina have done so to avoid hurricanes and big insurance premium jumps.”

Courtesy of Karen Colton

Dire Warnings Become Harder to Ignore

It has grown harder for Americans to ignore global warming in the wake of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which released a report last fall warning of catastrophic consequences like increased droughts and food shortages if the atmosphere rises by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2040 -- a possibility that scientists consider likely.

Since then, the journal Science reported that oceans are warming up at an even quicker rate. Kevin Trenberth, an author of the study, said at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that “the numbers are coming in 40% to 50% [warmer] than the last IPCC report [five years ago].”

Higher ocean temperatures mean that sea levels will continue to rise, as the heat causes water to expand. And higher sea levels cause more destructive hurricanes as the water is pushed further inland. For some residents, this threat is enough to make them leave.

“We will miss the warm winters,” says Karen Colton, a 54-year-old resident who lives near Upper Tampa Bay. There may be fewer sun-filled days at her new destination, yes, but Colton is still eager to retire to Asheville, N.C., with her wife, Rebecca Turner, this summer. Colton says she's done fearing the “killer hurricane and floods” that wreak havoc on her current hometown, and craves peace of mind during her retirement years.

The couple has been fortunate to have escaped severe hurricane damage so far. But, Colton wonders, “What if I won’t be as lucky next time”? “I like that Asheville seems to be immune to most natural disasters,” she says.

Lynne Portnoy, 68, also plans to pull up roots, in her case in Plantation, Fl. Portnoy now lives in Plainview, N.Y., yet she has always kept property in Florida as a fall back for retirement. “But I now see that makes no sense whatsoever,” she says. Major hurricanes sweeping through the state in the past few years, such as Hurricanes Irma and Michael, have convinced her to sell.

Portnoy currently rents her property for an extra stream of income. But she’s willing to forgo that revenue so that she doesn’t have to worry about the increasing likelihood of a storm ruining her house. “My real concern is being an absentee owner and having to deal with major damage,” she says. She's now considering retiring to a place that has fewer floods and natural disasters, such as Oregon.

To be sure, not everyone has noticed an exodus. George Jalil, chairman of the board at the Miami Association of Realtors, says that home buyers aren’t fleeing en masse from climate change risks. Property values and sales in Miami-Dade county have actually increased this past year, he says. “Overall, there is a strong demand for local properties,” Jalil says. This is the case despite serious property damage in the low-lying area: a 2018 report found that lower-elevation homes in Miami-Dade county experienced $465 million in hurricane losses from 2005 to 2016.

Jessa Madosky, 35, hopes the robust real estate market continues until she's ready to sell her home in Lithia, Fl., near Tampa, and move out of state. As an assistant professor at the University of Tampa’s biology department, Madosky is especially attuned to how global warming is affecting and will continue to affect Florida. “With an increase in global temperatures and an increase in ocean temperatures, hurricanes are becoming more severe,” Madosky says. “Warmer air can also hold more water, so hurricanes will be dumping a lot more water when they come through.”

Courtesy of Jessa Madosky

Soaring Insurance Premiums Pinch Homeowners

She projects that these changes will not only affect the real estate market, but will also increase the prices of homeowners’ insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plans to adopt risk-based pricing in 2020, switching from the current, outdated system used by the National Flood Insurance Policy. A FEMA spokesperson says that the proposed redesign will offer a “more accurate assessment of risk to determine flood insurance policies.” The upshot? Coastal communities have a greater chance of experiencing sudden, soaring rates, experts say.

If that’s not enough, a report from the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation projects that homeowners’ premiums from 15 of the state’s largest insurance companies will rise significantly in the next five years. They already have, in Madosky’s experience. “We were pretty shocked by the cost of insurance in Florida versus previously owning a house in North Carolina,” Madosky says. “The insurance cost is way higher here and it keeps going up by $100 to $200 a year.”

Madosky and her husband want to avoid the financial losses of climate change as much as they can, and so they have come to an agreement: They will be saying farewell to Florida when they retire in about 30 years.

Where will they go? “We’re thinking of parts of the Pacific Northwest because we love that ecosystem, but also because it’s away from the coastlines,” Madosky says. The couple likes that the region is close to Canada as well. Because just in case the Pacific Northwest doesn’t turn out to be a relatively safe haven from rising temperatures and storms decades from now, Madosky jokes, “we can always keep going north!”