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Environment & Climate

Hurricane Ian: what went wrong in Florida? Are there lessons we can learn?

Hurricane Ian reminded us that storms are unpredictable and pose an increasing risk to unprepared and heavily populated coastal communities. What should governments do to mitigate the impact? (Leer en español)
Publicado 5 Oct 2022 – 12:18 PM EDT | Actualizado 13 Oct 2022 – 06:33 PM EDT
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A home is shown swept away in the wake of Hurricane Ian on October 3, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. Crédito: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While every hurricane leaves its mark, Ian could go down as a game changer, on a par with Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which decimated the entire state’s insurance market and led to a much-needed overhaul of building codes in the Miami area of Southeast Florida.

Hurricane Ian was a less powerful storm than Andrew’s Category 5 winds of up to 165 mph, it was much bigger in size. It’s Category 4 destruction along a 115-mile stretch of Florida’s southwest coast, exposed gaping flaws in local building codes, from inadequate roofs to over development of housing in low-lying flood zones, as well as inadequate preparations and warnings by county officials.

As officials calculate the damage totals and the loss, all kinds of experts - from meteorologists, emergency managers, insurance companies, architects and urban planners - are also examining the manifold lessons to be learned from Hurricane Ian.

More than two million people were left without electricity or cellphone coverage, in part due to lack of investment in underground power lines. Gas stations throughout the area were closed as the pumps were left without electricity. Hundreds of the sick and elderly had to be evacuated from unsafe health care facilities located in flooded areas.

Florida officials now say at least 100 people died in the storm, almost half in Lee County, where Fort Myers is located. Most victims were drownings, trapped in their homes or cars by the 10-foot storm surge

Had Ian hit Miami, the consequences could have been even more catastrophic. “It’s a historic catastrophe anywhere hits. But it would be worse than Andrew because Miami is a more populated area,” said Jeff Masters, a veteran meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections.

“Ian was crazy because you had all three of the major hazards of a hurricane: the storm surge, wind and inland flooding from heavy rains. All three were catastrophic,” said Masters. “With Andrew it was only wind. So in my mind, Ian was three times the storm Andrew was in terms of damage,” he added, predicting it would end up being at least double the $65 billion damage caused by Andrew.

Even so, Ian was not the most powerful storm in history. That title belongs to the massive ‘Super Storm’ Sandy which hit the New York/New Jersey area in 2015. Ian was barely one third the power of Sandy. (Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017 are currently tied for the most expensive storm: $125 billion.)

Late evacuating: did meterologists get Hurricane Ian's track wrong?

Then there was Ian’s unpredictability. While some victims chose to ignore evacuations orders, others were caught by surprise by the inability of forecasters to determine its landfall until it was too late for some to escape its path of destruction.

Ian was a tough storm to forecast especially after it left Cuba and headed towards Florida, rapidly intensifying beyond expectations and ending up striking the coast farther south than initially predicted. Experts say the National Hurricane Center may need to rethink the way it uses various computer models to come up with a graphic, known as the ‘cone of uncertainty,’ to show its likely path.

“The cone is useful, but if you don't know what it is and how it works, then maybe it's a hindrance,” said Masters. “There’s a lot of misinterpretation about how to use a cone what it means,’ he added.

Over the past five years, storms have ended up making landfall outside the cone one third of the time. In Ian’s case it came close to the edge of the cone. “That threw a lot of people,” said Masters, who suggested that the Hurricane Center might consider a larger size cone when the situation is more uncertain than usual.

The extra uncertainty over Ian stemmed from disagreement among the computer models used to help predict the weather. The main American forecast model, known as the Global Forecast System, had the storm would strike the Florida Panhandle as a Category 2 storm. The rival European Medium Range Forecast Model (ECMWF) had the storm striking further south.

So, the National Hurricane Center chose an estimated track line between the two, in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, with a large cone of uncertainty to the north and the south. It also warned issued this warning: "Users are reminded to not focus on the exact track as some additional adjustments to the track are possible, and wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards will extend far from the center."

But, many residents south of Tampa, such as Fort Myers and the nearly barrier islands of Fort Myers Beach, Captiva, Sanibel, and Pine Island, mistakenly came to the conclusion they were out of harm’s way.

Worse still, some emergency managers also misread the Hurricane Center’s forecast. As a result, they were slow to warn residents. On Tuesday, the day before Ian’s made landfall, local officials in the path of Ian were saying prayers for Tampa. Evacuations were not mandated in Lee County until more than half a day after Tampa had done so.

Climate change advocates say officials keep ignoring warnings signs

Due to warming temperatures and sea level rise, climate change activists have for years been warning of the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and address coastal over development.

“If Hurricane Ian isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is,” said Susan Glickman, a veteran climate change advocate and director of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action. “The fact of the matter is a warming climate brings us more major tropical cyclones. It brings us heavier rain, and it brings us more flooding. So, if our elected officials and policymakers don't understand and act with urgency, they are simply failing us,” she added.

Glickman spent Monday rescuing her own sister from Pine Island after she and her husband were unable to evacuate in time. Their house was destroyed. “My sister is as astronomer and her husband is a sailor. They know the area as well as any two people do. And they got caught,” she said.

Can the insurance industry cope with claims from Ian?

Damage from Hurricane Ian is likely to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Of that, insured losses are predicted to be in the region of at least $60 billion. Hurricane Ian caused both wind and flood damage, but typical hurricane insurance policies, known as ‘Windstorm’ coverage do not cover flooding. Water damage, other than rain coming in through damaged roofs and windows, comes under a separate policy, typically offered under the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program. But only 30-50% of residential structures in specially designated flood zones have flood insurance.

“Insurance companies have made the definition of how they cover damages confusing and counter intuitive. You may think you had a flood, but it might not be a flood under your policy's definition,” said Gwynne Beatty, a property damage expert with United Claims Specialists in Florida.

Some experts question how long the federal government will continue to bail out property in vulnerable coastal flood zones. Congress has already debated steep increases in the cost of federal insurance for those people who risk living in vulnerable coastal areas.

After Ian, what does the future look like for cities like Miami?

By 2040, sea levels in South Florida are expected to be 10 to 17 inches higher than 2000 levels. But that doesn’t seem to stop people moving to coastal areas.

Lack of adaptation investment now will have major consequences for the economic wellbeing of the region, according to Miami-Dade County own Office of Resilience website. “Adaptation implemented now will avoid $3.2 billion in structural losses regionally from tidal inundation in 2040,” it adds.

Damage and losses can be reduced by investing in adaptation, such as investing in floodproofing, sea walls, elevation, reinforcing sand dunes by planting grasses, and beach nourishment. While the state is funding projects to adapt to climate impacts, “they have done nothing to reduce the driver of the problem,” said Glickman, referring to the continued reliance on oil and gas for cars and electricity.

“We are so addicted to a damaging, dangerous product that we can't seem to wean ourselves off. But if our politicians keep doing the bidding of the oil, gas and utility companies, we are simply dooming future generations to more intense hurricanes,” she added.

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