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Environment & Climate

Florida's population growth and climate change make a recipe for disaster

Hurricane Ian impacted Southwest Florida which has seen some of the fastest population and housing growth in the country. While some residents are among the wealthiest in the nation, living in Naples beachfront mansions, others are poor farm workers in Immokalee, living in trailers.
Publicado 28 Sep 2022 – 06:34 PM EDT | Actualizado 28 Sep 2022 – 07:57 PM EDT
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A satellite image of Hurricane Ian provied by NOAA shows the moment imade landfall in Punta Gorda, soutwest Florida at 3.06 p. m. EST, as a high end Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph. Crédito: AP

Hurricane Ian made landfall as a strong Category 4 in southwest Florida creating an unprecedented storm surge event in the Naples-Fort Myers area, one of the wealthiest and fastest growing coastal regions in the country.

Even though Ian’s 150-mph (250 kph) winds avoided more densely populated Tampa Bay to the north, Florida is still looking at a multibillion-dollar disaster and another lesson about the dangers of unrestrained housing development in low-lying coastal area prone to flooding.

And climate change has likely made the outcome worse, say scientists and environmentalists.

“Florida has seen unfettered development,” said Susan Glickman, a veteran climate and clean energy advocate based in Tampa. Despite the warning signs of climate change, such as rising sea level and more intense hurricanes, “we have not put the brakes on building on the beach or along our waterfront,” she added.

Hurricane Ian delivered a devastating mix of “catastrophic” damaging winds, as well as 12 to 16 feet storm along a stretch of coast from Port Charlotte to Fort Myers and Naples, including the tourist islands of Captiva and Sanibel, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Despire risk of hurricanes, Florida's coastal population keeps growing

With a combined population of more than one million residents, Lee and Collier counties in southwest Florida make up one of the fastest growing areas of the state, including Naples and Fort Myers. Naples is also one of the wealthiest cities in the country with an average household income of almost $120,000, and the second highest proportion of millionaires per capita in the U.S. after San Jose, California, according to the U.S. Census.

“People want to live in Florida because of the climate and the water’s edge. It’s gorgeous,” said Tim Center, director of the Council for Sustainable Florida. The year-round warm weather and lack of a state income tax has also attracted large communities of retirees. But more population means more damage from intense hurricanes, like Ian, as well as more insurance costs to recover.

“Everyone in the country pays a bit towards those communities. They are effectively subsidized. So, if they are destroyed the question becomes to what degree can we rebuild. What can the market bear?” added Center.

The effect of climate change on hurricanes

Climate change makes storm surge more dangerous than in past years due to increasing sea levels as well as heavier rainfall due to the added water vapor in the atmosphere from warmer sea temperatures. Hurricane Ian rapidly intensified over the last 48 hours, reaching almost Category 5 status before landfall on Wednesday.

Scientists point to evidence that such intensification can be linked to climate change. “I grew up in Tampa. We've always had hurricanes, but it was never supercharged in the way that it is now,” said Glickman.

“Before we understood the consequences of climate change we knew we were a peninsula at a latitude in the world that was impacted by tropical storms. So that risk has always been there,” said Jim Murley, the Miami-Dade County Chief Resiliency Officer, interviewed by telephone at his desk in the Emergency Operations Center on Wednesday where he was watching storm data on multiple screens.

“Now we understand that climate change is going to magnify those existing impacts and add new ones like sea level rise and extreme heat. So that means climate change has become a very important factor in our dealing with day to day impacts and thinking long term,” he said.

Real estate boom before the recession saw major growth around Fort Myers

While the wealthier residents of Naples and Fort Myers may live in stronger-built homes, a recent boom in lower cost housing further inland has increased the likely cost of destruction from Ian. For example, a few miles from Fort Myers, the community of LeeHigh Acres, with a population of 130,000, experienced massive growth prior to the last great recession in 2008, fueled by the sub-prime mortgage scandal.

After making landfall, Ian is projected to cross the state passing close to one of the poorest rural cities in Florida, Immokalee, about 40 miles (72 kms) southwest of Fort Myers, where many of the 30,000 residents are Hispanic farm workers who live in rented trailers. Residents lost power to their homes early Wednesday hours before the storm arrived, and all farmworkers were given the day off.

Immigrant agricultural workers hit by Irma in 2017

Immokalee took the brunt of Hurricane Irma in 2017, the last major hurricane to hit western Florida, also grazing Miami. “We’re staying indoors hoping it’s not as bad as Irma. That one was strong, it hit us directly,” said Julia Perkins, with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Many trailers were blown over by Irma, their roof ripped off. “In terms of housing and poor conditions, not much has ged, but people do have more experience of how to protect themselves now," she added. She said the coalition spent Tuesday advising residents to go to two refuge shelters at local Collier county schools.

No-one is safe from storms, even inland. “We are a flat state,” said Centers. The highest elevation is barely 100-feet above sea level found in a hilly region north of Orlando around the horse farms in Ocala. The restaurant at Ocala airport is called ‘Elevation 89’ due its relatively high ground.

After making important strides to strengthen building codes following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, critics say
the state took a step backwards under Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who banned mention of climate change from government reports. Scott owns a 30 million-dollar beachfront home in Naples.

“Under Governor Scott (2011-2019) they dismantled growth management planning , they defunded regional planning and moved away from thoughtful development,” she said.

Federal and local regulations have improved over the years, said Murley, pointing to building permits and insurance requirements, as well as projects to bury power lines underground, street elevation, and reinforcing vital installations such as sewage treatment plants.

Florida is also recognized as having some of country’s top emergency management institutions and experts, such as Murley, who is a veteran environmentalist and the state’s former head of coastal development.
“It will cause damage it will cause loss of power,” said Murley. “We just pray there won't be a loss of life. But nature deals these things to you. We know what the drill is,” said.