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Residents and businesses prepare to take a hit from Hurricane Florence

The cost to rebuild the 759,000 homes in the danger zone could reach $170 billion.
Image: A man walks past a boarded up shop in Wilmington, North Carolina
A man walks past a boarded-up shop in Wilmington, North Carolina on Sept. 12, 2018.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

Hurricane Florence is barreling down on the East Coast, bringing with it not just punishing winds and record storm surges, but also the potential for tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic damage.

Ahead of landfall by the Category 4 storm, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned, “The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen. Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster."

Across the three states in the impact zone, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, an estimated 759,000 homes are susceptible to damage from storm surges, according to estimates by real estate analytics company CoreLogic. If all those houses were destroyed in a storm, the cost to rebuild them could reach $170 billion.

Dampening the blow, after storm events, the federal government often picks up around 60 percent of the cost of hurricane damage. State and local governments, insurance, and private individuals pay the rest.

After Hurricane Harvey, in August 2017, residents of Houston and other waterlogged communities found themselves with far less insurance coverage than expected: While most comprehensive car insurance policies cover flood damage, as a rule, homeowners’ policies don’t cover water damage resulting from floods; if wind shears off a roof and rain pours in, that damage is typically covered, but overflowing rivers or reservoirs or storm surges are not.

Risk analysts estimate that only between 15 and 20 percent of homes in the Houston area were covered by flood insurance when Harvey inundated entire neighborhoods with water, which means much of the individual losses will be borne directly by homeowners.

Still, the prospect of large payouts hammered insurance stocks Wednesday, sending an index of insurers in the S&P 500 down 1.3 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.2 million people in the U.S. live in counties where expected hurricane damage per capita is greater than 5 percent of the county’s average per capita income. Depending on the locale, that would translate into more than $1,200 per capita damage in the path of Hurricane Florence.

The mayor of Washington, D.C., declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, joining governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. West Virginia has declared a state of preparedness. In all, as many as 1.7 million people have been asked to evacuate.

Many hotels in the region are waiving fees for people cancelling reservations or for evacuees who are bringing pets along with them. G6 Hospitality, which owns the Motel 6 chain, says there is limited availability at its properties in the Carolinas. Evacuees are decamping to Georgia and other nearby states, according to reports.

Consumers are also racing to stock up on emergency supplies — and regulators have an eye out for speculators looking to take advantage.

Statutes against price-gouging are now in effect in areas that have already declared a state of emergency. Businesses found to engage in “excessive pricing” can face a $1,000 fine per misdemeanor offense and up to 30 days jail time. North Carolina says price gougers may face civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation.

But sellers on online classified sites are already selling "brand new in box" portable generators at markups ranging from 20 to 60 percent. In Virginia, a new 5500-watt portable generator that sells for $549 retail was going for $900 on a local Craigslist.

AAA says to expect gasoline prices to “spike” in affected areas. However, over the longer term, gas prices should remain stable, because there are no major refineries in the affected areas.

The storm could also have significant impact for keystone local industries. Boeing says it’s shutting its North Charleston plant in South Carolina to give its 6,000 workers a chance to evacuate. In North Carolina’s $1.1 billion coastal tourism industry, 38,000 workers are also affected.

The state's 2,100 hog farms are especially susceptible to storm damage, affecting 9 million pigs statewide, 13 percent of the U.S. total. Fisheries in North Carolina are also vulnerable, threatening $188 million in annual sales, according to Sea Grant North Carolina/Duke University. Shipbuilding could also be affected, which contributes $386 million to the state economy.