but insurance records of storm damage are probably a better way to detect any meaningful change in storm damage.
In studying hurricanes, we can make rough comparisons over time by adjusting past losses to account for inflation and the growth of coastal communities. If Sandy causes $20 billion in damage (in 2012 dollars), it would rank as the 17th most damaging hurricane or tropical storm (out of 242) to hit the U.S. since 1900—a significant event, but not close to the top 10. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 tops the list (according to estimates by the catastrophe-insurance provider ICAT), as it would cause $180 billion in damage if it were to strike today. Hurricane Katrina ranks fourth at $85 billion.
To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.
Here is one thing the industry agrees is true: The cost from hurricane damages is increasing. That's largely because population density and the cost of coastal property increases every year.
"Are we really seeing more storms, or are we just recording more storms? That's the big question," says longtime expert Karen Clark, who runs her own risk-management consultancy.
Clark says the problem is that hurricane prediction is a very young science. She notes that records documenting hurricanes go back only about a century, a data set far too small to draw big conclusions.
She says after Hurricane Katrina — the most expensive of all documented storms — some predicted a warming cycle would produce more powerful storms. That forecast did not bear out.
"It just shows you that we just are not that smart, you know, when it comes to what's really going on," Clark says.
Bill Keogh, president of Eqecat, one of the major risk-modeling firms in the U.S., says that despite what it may seem, we are now in a statistically low period of hurricane activity. After Katrina, few powerful hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S.
(Observations trump models. Always)