Florida was leveled by the housing bust, but now is back on top

Florida begins to evacuate and prepare for Irma
Florida begins to evacuate and prepare for Irma

Few places were hit as hard by the housing bust and Great Recession as Florida, which is about to be to be walloped by Hurricane Irma.

But in recent years, Florida has climbed nearly all the way back.

Home prices that plunged 50% during the bust have rebounded.

Florida's unemployment rate, which more than tripled to 11.2%, has plunged to 4.1% -- lower than the national average.

Economic growth, per person, is about 50% greater than across the nation. During the recession it was falling faster than anywhere but Nevada, Arizona and Michigan.

"I would say Florida was in recession for a good two-and-a-half years longer than the nation as a whole," said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "But by 2012 we went from lagging the overall economy to leading it."

The tourism industry, the state's largest sector, is going strong, as is home building. People are flooding into the state, fueling growth and making Florida the nation's third largest state by population.

Related: 'Panic buying' sparks gas shortages in Florida

"We depend on people moving to Florida and visiting Florida. Both those things are doing just fine for now," said Chris McCarty, director of the University of Florida's bureau of economic and business research. And he said even if Irma does as much damage in the state as feared, those factors are unlikely to change.

"We did a study following Andrew," he said about the 1992 hurricane that was the most expensive to hit the state. "We tried to get some sense if hurricanes have any permanent effect on people's view. What we found is has no permanent effect on people's intention to visit here or live here."

Regaining both visitors and residents is vital to a region's recovery after a natural disaster. One of the problems for New Orleans' economy 12 years after Hurricane Katrina is that so many people left and never came back. Population there is still 18% below pre-storm levels.

Related: for Caribbean residents, Irma could last months

No one is expecting a permanent population loss for any Florida city. But since much of Florida's strong economy is dependent on its population growth, even a slowdown in that migration would start to hamper the pace of economic growth, according to the experts.

"You put more people in the state, you'll get more economic activity by default," said Snaith.

One of the biggest problems the economy might face after the storm is finding the workers needed to recover and rebuild from damage, particularly in the construction industry, said McCarty.

But there are pockets of Florida's economy that are struggling, particularly the signature citrus industry. But problems there are caused by a disease known as citrus greening, carried by an insect, which leaves the fruit green, bitter tasting and thus useless while killing the tree.

It has slashed production of oranges by more than two thirds since 2003, and left many growers in deep financial problems with mounting losses. Experts fear that Irma could cause widespread bankruptcies among already struggling growers, depending upon where the storm hits.

But in the overall scheme of the state's economy, oranges are no longer a crucial industry, employing less than one-half of a percent of those with jobs in the state.

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