Hurricane Ian’s path of destruction cut through some of the nation’s fastest-growing counties and devastated communities whose populations have doubled and tripled in recent decades during a period of deceptive atmospheric calm.
Ian made landfall Wednesday afternoon off the coast of Lee County, Florida, where the population has more than doubled to nearly 800,000 since 1990.
Counties on Ian’s journey through west and central Florida include Osceola, whose population has nearly tripled since 1990, and Sumter, where an influx of people has seen the population more than triple what it was 30 years ago.
The “extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,” as NOAA’s National Hurricane Center described Ian, inundated potentially hundreds of thousands of homes without flood insurance — perhaps millions — and destroyed countless buildings built to lax building standards.
“The history of Florida is the history of development taking place in times and places where it probably shouldn’t be,” said Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters.
Ian evolved into a rare triple threat, causing destruction with winds of 155 miles per hour, storm surges of 12 feet and two feet or more of rain inundating the interior of the country. Ian strengthened into a Category 4 storm on Wednesday, with howling winds nearly reaching mythical Category 5 status, which starts at 157 miles per hour. Only four Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the United States since 1900.
“This will be a storm that we will be talking about for many years to come,” Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service, said at a briefing on Wednesday. Ian will wreak havoc “not just on the south-west coast [of Florida] but also inland.”
Ian weakened overnight to a tropical storm with winds of 65 miles per hour as it moved northeast across the Florida peninsula toward the Atlantic. It is forecast to make a second touchdown in South Carolina near the Georgia line on Friday afternoon.
The storm will expose a host of vulnerabilities in the nation’s most hurricane-prone state, including a flagging property insurance market, a widespread flood insurance shortage and breakneck development.
Florida has some of the strictest statewide building codes in the country, enacted after Hurricane Andrew devastated Southwest Florida in 1992. However, the new regulations only came into effect in 2001 and only apply to buildings that have been constructed or substantially repaired since then.
“The extent of the damage is usually directly related to the year the home was built,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Florida-based Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.
The new codes “should be a very positive factor” in limiting damage to homes built under them, Chapman-Henderson said. But with Ian’s winds hitting 155mph, damage to buildings “will still be exceptional”.
The rainfall forecast is also alarming because it will cause massive flooding in inland areas where few people have flood insurance, said Craig Fugate, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator and former chief of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
CoreLogic Inc., a real estate analysis firm, predicted that 7.2 million Florida homes — totaling $1.6 trillion — are at risk of flash flood damage.
Flood insurance is sold separately from standard homeowner policies, and only a small number of people buy flood insurance.
Florida has one of the highest flood coverage rates in the United States, according to FEMA. But the policies are focused on flood-prone coastal areas like the Miami area, where federal law requires many homeowners to have flood insurance because they’re in a high-risk zone.
“Most inland flooding from heavy rain will occur in locations that are not within the mandatory purchase demand area,” Fugate said in an interview.
“If you start raining a foot or more in Orlando, there’s a risk of a lot of flooding,” he added.
Orange County, the landlocked central Florida state that includes Orlando, has almost twice the population of Palm Beach County on the southeast coast — about 1.5 million. But only a fraction of these inland residents have flood protection measures in place.
In Palm Beach, more than 115,000 homes have federal flood insurance, according to FEMA records analyzed by E&E News. In Orange County, fewer than 12,000 homes have flood defenses.
The widespread lack of flood insurance could force federal taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on disaster relief, which gives households money for minor home repairs and other emergency expenses.
At the same time, Ian’s wind damage will result in tens of billions of dollars in insurance claims from Florida’s struggling private sector property insurance companies. Six insurers in Florida were declared bankrupt this year, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to buy coverage from a state-backed insurer of last resort (climate wire19 Sept).
Hurricane Ian “will only push it further off the cliff,” Florida Conservation Voters’ Webber said of Florida’s insurance market.
Ian also draws attention to Florida’s overlooked west coast, which has seen some of the state’s fastest developments and the creation of new metropolitan areas such as Cape Coral-Fort Myers, where Ian landed at 3:05 p.m. Wednesday.
“Whole new cities have just sprung up on the northern border of the Everglades,” said Jesse Keenan, associate professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University’s School of Architecture and an expert on Florida development patterns.
Keenan pointed to San Carlos Park, a roughly 5-square-mile suburb of Fort Myers that is now home to 18,000 people and has helped make Lee County one of the fastest growing counties in the country.
Keenan said the explosive growth in communities like San Carlos Park may be directly related to the passage of Florida’s 2011 Community Planning Act, which returned most decision-making powers over land use and development to local authorities.
The state Department of Community Affairs, which coordinated and enforced local development plans, was abolished as a separate agency and its growth management responsibilities were placed under a newly created Department of Economic Opportunities.
“From a long-term planning perspective, a lot of what we see in Southwest Florida today shouldn’t be there,” said Tim Chapin, professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.
“The result is kind of an ill-planned, real estate gains-oriented place from the start,” Chapin said. “If you combine that with a massive storm, you get a place with a very low resistivity right from the start.”