Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Hurricane Ian’s path will hit Florida’s most populous and fastest-growing coastal cities

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Hurricane Ian rages toward Florida coast and is expected to reach Category 3 strength by Monday night, with winds reaching 129 mph. Mandatory evacuations have already started.

But wind and rain alone don’t make Ian a threat; Florida’s population has grown in recent years, with some of the biggest increases in vulnerable coastal cities like Tampa and Miami. Forecasters are getting better at predicting hurricanes. However, these storms trap more people and property in their swaths of destruction as they become more damaging and as more people move into high-risk areas.

“Life-threatening storm surge is possible along much of Florida’s west coast,” says de National Hurricane Center warned on Monday. The areas of highest risk extend from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay, with water levels as high as 3 meters.

Storm surge is expected to reach 10 feet as Hurricane Ian makes landfall in Florida.
National Hurricane Center

A storm surge occurs when a hurricane’s winds raise water levels and sweep them inland, leading to flooding. This is often the deadliest part of a hurricane. In combination with as many as 10 centimeters of rainIan’s water could linger for days.

These effects are exacerbated by climate change. Rising average temperatures raise sea levels and increase rainfall from major storms, leading to more devastating storm surges. The increasing devastation from extreme weather events, many of which has been exacerbated by climate change, is fueling an increase in disasters with damage in excess of $1 billion.

But in Florida, as in much of the country, these more expensive disasters also stem from more people living and building at risk.

Around 40 percent of the US population lives in a coastal province. However, Florida has seen a large increase in residents in these areas. From 2010 to 2020, Miami was home to more than 660,000 residents, while Tampa-St. Petersburg grew by more than 365,000 people, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. The Tampa Bay metro region is home to more than 3 million people, with homes, offices and roads built right up to the waterfront in some areas, including regions vulnerable to flooding. “The further out into the bay, the worse the hurricane storm surge potential,” Bob Weisbergan oceanographer who studied flooding in Tampa Bay told cafemadrid’ Brian Resnick in 2019.

Map showing Florida urban population growth between 2010 and 2020.

Between 2010 and 2020, coastal urban areas in Florida have seen significant population growth.
Florida Department of Transportation

Florida’s sunny beaches are a strong draw, but the state and local governments are also encouraging more people to move to the Sunshine State’s shores.

“You have these coastal cities that are taking a gamble by encouraging development, even though it may not be environmentally sustainable or a good idea for people to live at a greater risk,” he said. Jason von Medingan associate professor who studies disaster and society at the Rinker School of Construction Management at the University of Florida.

As more people move in, so do the homes, businesses and infrastructure they need. So when a storm hits a region, it leaves a much higher damage bill.

However, Von Meding added that his main concern is not that there are “too many” people in Florida, but rather where they want to build and how the burden of disasters is spread. For example, the dollar value of damage does not always reflect who is most at risk and who suffers most in the aftermath of a hurricane. Expensive, insured vacation homes on the coast can be recorded as higher losses than the single homes of low-income families.

Fortunately, fewer people die from extreme weather events such as hurricanes. Better building codes, contingency planning and forecasting have helped people get out of the path of danger. Hurricane modellers can now project a storm’s path 72 hours in advance with a resolution that decades ago was only possible 24 hours in advance, buying crucial time.

But anticipating the intensity of a hurricane remains a challenge. Some studies have shown that more Atlantic hurricanes undergo rapid intensification, defined as an increase in wind speed of 35 mph or more over 24 hours. As average temperatures rise, hurricanes are likely to pile up faster, making it more difficult for residents to evacuate in time.

A storm also doesn’t have to reach hurricane strength before it becomes dangerous. Miami is already seeing flooding with King Tides and heavy rainfall on a regular basis, compounded by the fact that: parts of the city sink. More than 10 inches of rain fell on Miami during a storm earlier this summer that flooded streets and flooded a sewage treatment plant.

Cars are stuck in a flooded street caused by a torrent of rain from a tropical rainstorm that swept through the area in Miami, Florida, on June 4, 2022.

Miami was flooded with rain this summer.
Joe Raedle/Getty Image

Cities like Tampa are now grappling with even more devastating storms in the future, possibly even a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds causing a 26-foot storm surge.

However, the destruction of a storm does not end after the flood waters recede. Many inequalities can continue to reproduce. People without insurance or the means to rebuild may have to move permanently or face permanent financial hardship. “Recovery processes prefer people who already have resources,” von Meding said. “Often we see a worsening of inequality after a disaster.”

Puerto Rico is an example of this. More than 600,000 customers are still in the dark on Monday afternoon after Hurricane Fiona swept across the island last week. Without power, many residents struggle to get clean drinking water and use critical medical devices. So the full damage from a storm depends not only on wind and water, but also on how people prepare and how quickly they recover.

Ian is ready to pound Florida on Tuesday and make his way up the Gulf Coast. Utilities are now preparing for outages and draft crews to restore power in Ian’s wake.

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