For retired Americans, sunbathers, and beach lovers, the barrier islands off Florida’s southwest coast are the closest thing to (affordable) paradise on earth—until Hurricane Ian swept through the area on September 28th. Today places like Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva are synonymous with destruction. Large parts of these communities were devastated when Ian made landfall as a category four hurricane (just under the maximum category five) with winds exceeding 155 mph, flattening entire neighborhoods and killing at least 127 people. Thousands are now homeless and struggling with their insurance companies – if they had homeowners insurance at all. The question everyone asks – is it worth paying such a high price to live in paradise?
People who move to these areas know that they are very exposed to the vagaries of nature, both good and bad. But experts agree that the southeast coast of the United States is becoming climate change ground zero as hurricanes like Ian gain strength as they sweep across the increasingly warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, as the slow process of recovery gets underway, a debate rages on about what can be done to minimize damage from the next storm. “I’m afraid we’re going to make the same mistakes and rebuild houses the same way we did before the hurricane,” Robert S. Young told EL PAÍS. Young teaches at Western Carolina University, where he directs a program studying developed coasts. Ian caused five deaths in North Carolina even though it dropped to tropical storm force. “If you don’t have a good plan, it’s difficult to keep your cool when federal disaster relief funds are pouring in and people are anxious to get back into their homes,” Young said. According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman, “More than $210 million in assistance has been approved for the more than 128,000 people and homes affected by Hurricane Ian.”
Storms come and go, but Young says the United States is still “not having a productive conversation about the long-term protection of areas that will be impacted by sea-level rise and hurricanes with ever-increasing winds and heavy rainfall.” It’s not a problem unique to Florida, and it’s affecting dozens of communities along the east coast of the United States, “from Maine to Texas,” Young said. And elsewhere. “We’ve seen wave after wave of people living too close to the sea. Spain is no exception,” he said.
Yoca Arditi-Rocha is Executive Director of the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and advocating in Florida on the climate crisis. “Rebuilding would mean playing hurricane Russian roulette,” she said. Just before Ian struck, the CLEO Institute launched a proactive public awareness campaign – “Don’t let the Sunshine State become an emergency!” Arditi-Rocha told EL PAÍS in an email: “We didn’t know [when they launched the campaign] what Mother Nature intended.” Her organization advocates “tougher building codes, minimal building elevation to withstand sea-level rise, underground power lines, and access to solar energy with battery storage.”
Arditi-Rocha said: “The good news is that there are solutions.” And the bad news? “As a society, we don’t demand them.” She cites Babcock Ranch, an innovative community north of Fort Myers that caught media attention in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Homes in this community are built to withstand hurricanes. All power lines are buried underground to protect them from high winds, and stormwater retention basins protect homes from flooding. Solar energy ensures a steady supply of electricity and internet access. According to Ian, much of Florida lost power (2.6 million people), internet service, cell phone service, drinking water and gas.
Robert Young notes that after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey in 2012, the state bought back some of the land from hurricane victims to prevent them from rebuilding in inappropriate locations. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not announced any such action.
DeSantis, who appears to be positioning himself as the Republican nominee for the 2024 presidency, has made numerous trips to hurricane-affected areas, though he has avoided speaking about climate change. “Years of Republican leadership in Florida relegated the state to the Dark Ages because of partisan divisions,” Arditi-Rocha said. “Nearly 75% of the Sunshine State’s electricity is generated using imported, polluting fossil fuels. The rest comes from nuclear power plants and less than 1% from solar and wind energy. Our previous governor banned state officials from saying “climate change.” This governor has done a few things to address chronic flooding problems but never acknowledged the root cause. It’s like trying to clean up a flooded bathroom while the faucet is still running.”
Many of those hard hit by Hurricane Ian also don’t seem to be speaking out about the root causes. People like Fort Myers resident Anne Dalton, who not only has no plans to move from the area, but has decided to weather the hurricane at home. Many of those who were not evacuated in the days leading up to the storm did so out of stubbornness, although local authorities in ailing Lee County have been criticized for delaying a mandatory evacuation order. But others, like the couple in their 70s standing outside their flooded home on San Carlos Island (Fort Myers Beach), said they were ready to pack up and “go to another state where there are no wildfires.” , like in California, or tornadoes like in Kansas.”
The insurance companies take over
Some of the decisions hurricane victims face, particularly those on lower incomes, may be driven by their insurance policies. It is estimated that Hurricane Ian will cost insurance companies $60 billion in Florida alone, making it the second costliest hurricane in US history after Katrina in 2005. And that’s not counting the flood damage, which is a whole different story. “In this country, flood insurance is an add-on to a homeowner’s insurance policy and is only mandatory in government-designated flood plains,” said Young, who questions the accuracy of federal flood plain maps.
The low-lying areas of inland Florida were severely flooded in the aftermath of Ian, including North Port, just off the Fort Myers coast, where residents had to use canoes to get to homes inundated by chest-deep water. Wendy Bowman told EL PAÍS that she and her husband didn’t have flood insurance and didn’t know if they could afford to pay for all the repairs themselves. What happened to the Bowmans’ home in North Harbor has a name – compound flooding – which happens when overflowing rivers and streams can’t drain all the rainwater into the sea. And because of the climate crisis, Hurricane Ian dropped 10% more rain than previous storms of the same intensity.
Although Florida’s shores suffered the most damage, the state’s interior was also devastated. Many low-income Floridians like Hope Smith live miles from the beach in prefabricated homes that insurance companies don’t cover. Some insurance companies are expected to pull out of Florida altogether, as others have done after past hurricanes. “A lot of the houses on the idyllic barrier islands are second homes,” says Young. “And others are vacation rentals. Why would these homeowners want to rebuild and take the same risk all over again? Because they don’t live there – those houses are businesses.”
Florida’s stark inequality also drives how post-Ian people respond. “When you’re rich, you don’t bother with flood insurance. These policies cover at most $250,000, which for a Sanibel homeowner is what they paid for the car parked in the driveway. People who can’t afford to fix their homes will move out, and others with more money will take their places,” Young said, alluding to the unexpected aftermath of the hurricane’s gentrification.