Don’t expect Florida and Caribbean tourists to flock west

We have earthquakes and fires

Hurricane Irma on September 10, before making landfall in Florida. Hurricane José is visible in the lower right.
  • Hurricane Irma on September 10, before making landfall in Florida. Hurricane José is visible in the lower right.

Can San Diego and other West Coast metro areas make money because of the hurricane-prone eastern U.S. and the Caribbean? Florida and Caribbean islands are tourist havens. Now some of those areas lie in ruins as a result of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Harvey clobbered Houston, and earlier, Katrina crippled New Orleans and Sandy bashed the East Coast from Florida to Maine.

Smoke against the San Diego skyline at sunrise, October 23, 2007 (Witch Fire)

Smoke against the San Diego skyline at sunrise, October 23, 2007 (Witch Fire)

If what’s called “global warming” or the less apocalyptic “climate change” is real and a cause of such calamaties, can we expect that in the short or long run the West Coast will be stealing visitors, and perhaps house hunters, from the East?

The answer is it’s possible but not in great numbers, and only in the short run. But let’s look first at the science involved.

(Embedded in the definitions of “global warming” and “climate change” are assumptions that increased levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants are causes of the increasingly warm earth, and that humans are greatly responsible. Global warming deniers concede that the earth has gotten warmer in the past 30 years, but, they say, the earth has gone through many periods of warming and cooling. Generally, deniers doubt human activity is to blame. This column is aimed at both believers and deniers.)

Kaiser Permanente building after the 1994 Northridge earthquake

Kaiser Permanente building after the 1994 Northridge earthquake

It is true that the West Coast almost never gets hit by hurricanes. As Scientific American explains, “Hurricanes in the northern hemisphere form at tropical and subtropical latitudes and then tend to move toward the west-northwest.” On the East Coast, they head toward land. On the West Coast, they tend to head farther out to sea. Also, along the East Coast, the Gulf Stream can push water temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and hurricanes are fueled by the heat energy stored in warm ocean water. By contrast, “Along the West Coast, [water] temperatures rarely rise above the lower 70s Fahrenheit.” But it is true that “occasionally, tropical storms do strike coastal southern California. By the time they do, they have lost their hurricane-force winds, although they may still bring with them very heavy rainfall that can cause extensive flooding.”

So, hurricane-spooked folks might head for San Diego, Los Angeles, or the Bay Area. Hold on. “We have earthquakes and fires,” says Kelly Cunningham, economist at National University. Wildfires are certainly exacerbated by a warmer earth, and earthquakes may be affected, too, along with tsunamis and volcanos.

The Union of Concerned Scientists believes that global warming is increasing wildfire risks. “As the climate warms, moisture and precipitation levels are changing, with wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier,” writes the union. “Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will be more intense and long-burning.”

The National Wildlife Federation says that with a warmer earth, “More fuel for forest fires will become available because warmer and drier conditions are conducive to widespread beetle and other insect infestations, resulting in broad ranges of dead and highly combustible trees.” Also, lightning may increase. “In the western United States an increase of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature is expected to lead to a six-percent increase in lightning.”

And a warmer earth could intensify earthquakes, too, some scientists are saying.

A recent Australian-led study indicates that climate-related activities may affect the moving of tectonic plates — an extremely slow process. A team of researchers concluded that “the strengthening Indian monsoon had accelerated movement of the Indian plate over the past 10 million years by a factor of about 20 percent,” according to alternet.org. That’s an awfully long time.

But Patrick Wu, a geologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, says that melting ice can be a problem in the shorter term. The weight of polar ice “sort of suppresses the earthquakes, but when you melt the ice the earthquakes get triggered,” Wu told thoughtco.com. Melting ice may also set off tsunamis and volcanos, say some scientists.

So, can San Diego and other West Coast destinations cash in on East Coast hurricanes? The hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The big traffic of northerners seeking sunshine runs from November through February, so only November traffic would be hit by hurricane fears, points out Encinitas-based hotel guru Jerry Morrison.

However, “there is an opportunity [for the West Coast] to capture some of that business” from Florida and the Caribbean, says Morrison. But we have to be smart. “If we really invest in marketing and get airlines to give special pricing — yes, we could do it,” he says. “If we had an aggressive campaign, promote the West Coast, try to get the airlines to give us more capacity and give people a break on the fares,” the West Coast could be successful. But it’s “highly unlikely” that the airlines would cooperate. And the chances of a big promotion campaign are “pretty slim. We should be running big ads in the New York Times saying, ‘Come and enjoy our beaches in Santa Monica and San Diego — Special: four nights with free parking, free internet.’ That’s what we should be doing, but I am not holding my breath.”

Robert Rauch, chief executive of RAR Hospitality, a San Diego–based hotel management and consulting firm, says, “We might pick up something in the short term. We have in the past,” such as when a convention center has had to close down because of a calamity. People aren’t likely to change long-term traveling habits because of one disaster, particularly since the West has its own bugaboos.”

Will storm-battered people move to the West Coast from the East? National University’s Cunningham points to housing prices. According to Zillow.com, the median home value in San Diego is $583,300, San Jose $892,400, Los Angeles $632,000, and San Francisco $1.2 million. And Florida? Miami $300,800, Tampa $185,700, and Orlando $169,700. ’Nuf said. For every home buyer coming into California, there are three moving out, says CoreLogic. San Diego’s population is still growing “because of international immigration and babies, but domestic migration is negative,” says National University’s Cunningham.

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While your conclusions are probably true, Don, there is an opportunity for the local tourism cabal to benefit from Caribbean misfortune. Puerto Rico is, we are told, utterly devastated. It will be months until all of the island gets the power back on, and that will likely be done by makeshift measures. (Their power grid was in shambles before the hurricanes hit.) So, it may be a decade or more before that island can resume seriously hosting tourists, and especially those who expect luxury. That story will play out on many other islands in the region.

Another top tourist mecca for east coast types in Cancun, and that is now dealing with drug cartel violence, scaring away tourists. Cuba? Fuhgedabouddit.

That California might have an earthquake while someone is visiting really should not figure into one's plans. It is a one-in-ten-thousand possibility. A fire is most unlikely to disturb a beach resort area, and there is little personal danger from fires while visiting. (Now if you wanted to stay at a wine country resort hotel, right now that's a different story.) One of the biggest impediments to San Diego tourism is still the one-horse-town airport we have. The local tourism promoters have never managed to put it all together. Too much of the mid-price lodging is old and run down, yet wildly overpriced. The tourist attractions, such as Mission Bay Park are shabby and unattractive. TJ is no longer the day-trip tourist draw it once was, although some folks will unwisely still visit there because of its "exotic" and foreign environment.

So, tourism here could benefit from these disruptions. Those in charge of attracting tourists have one play in their playbook now, and will not break out of the box they are in.

I’ll add the ongoing coverage of the “Hepatitis A” epidemic, as well as the homeless encampments centered in San Diego ain’t going to help.

The hotelier’s lapdog, Mayor Faulconer, has once again failed to address the problem. Instead, he hires PR hacks to blame the County for his lack of leadership.

Visduh: There is no doubt that San Diego's poor airport inhibits tourism here. In fact, Kelly Cunningham mentioned that to me, but I didn't include it. You are correct about Puerto Rico. The U.S. Virgin Islands are in similar straits.

I wonder if all the media coverage of the Northern California and Anaheim fires will deter West Coast tourism. Best, Don Bauder

JustWondering: You are correct. National coverage of the Hepatitis A epidemic and the homeless problem could hurt tourism.

And you are right about the mayor, too. Best, Don Bauder

Don - must have been hard for you to move place to place. I have anxiety trying to move out of my family home of 50 years even though I know I want to and is for the best. Am gonna stay in SD but any change after a long time, structured lifestyle, can be traumatic. So I wouldn't expect people to want to relocate to unfamiliar territory. I have been thinking the rest of the country were coming here till recent fire. I know you were working at a paper in Chicago before you came to San Diego. My late husband was born Chicagan. Tell us where were born again, you probably already said but were you military dad family? My grandparents came from across the country. I'm thinking Ancestry.com might be good. Saw PBS really good shows, might do that for fun.

shirleyberan: I was born and raised in a suburb of Chicago. I spent almost all my young years in Glen Ellyn, a western suburb. My father was a stock and bond salesman in Chicago. I joined Business Week Magazine in Chicago and was promoted to Cleveland bureau chief two years later. We spent seven years in Cleveland and then came to San Diego.

My grandfather and grandmother lived in western exurbs of Chicago. The father side of the family came from Upstate New York, where my great grandfather owned a piece of a winery and also owned the bank. (It was a very small town -- Hammondsport, in the Finger Lakes region.)

My mother's family was in the Boston Bay Colony in the 1630s. Two English brothers named Goble came over, but not on the Mayflower, as far as we know. One was almost immediately hanged for killing Indians.

I am of English and German extraction -- mostly English, although my name is German. Best, Don Bauder

And wanted to ask, did Hugh Hefner influence you in a way to promiscuity and women's lib and better respect for women, as has been reported?

shirleyberan: I read Playboy when I was in college. But I was not as promiscuous as I wanted to be. (Is any college age male?) My respect for women came from two sources: 1. My mother was the smartest one in the family, and 2. My wife is the smartest one in our family. (My wife has a PhD in plant ecology -- a very tough degree. I only have a Master's in journalism -- nowhere near as tough.) Best, Don Bauder

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