Months after Hurricane Ian blasted Southwest Florida, the full scope of the storm’s damage has come into view: Ian now is officially the costliest storm in the state’s history and the third-most expensive in the nation’s.
The extent of the storm’s damage was detailed in a report released by the National Hurricane Center on Monday. Ian has racked up more than $112 billion in damage worldwide. Of that, more than $109 billion was in Florida.
The report outlines the life of Hurricane Ian, from its inception, to its landfall, to its eventual dissipation.
And new from that timeline: Ian for several hours swelled to Category 5 strength.
Before hitting the U.S., Ian made landfall as a Category 3 storm in western Cuba and caused power outages across the island. On Sept. 28, a menacing 126 mph Ian hit the Dry Tortugas. Ian after that attained Category 5 strength.
Ian was downgraded to a Category 4 storm just before it made landfall in Southwest Florida. After leaving behind its trail of unprecedented damage in Florida, Ian emerged into the Atlantic, then hit South Carolina as a Category 1 storm.
The aftershocks of Hurricane Ian’s mammoth human and financial toll are still rippling through Southwest Florida. The storm caused more than 150 deaths, directly or indirectly, and its towering storm surge claimed 36 lives in Lee County alone.
“Those are unusually high deaths tolls for a U.S. hurricane,” said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist for Yale Climate Connections.
All 66 deaths directly caused by the storm occurred in Florida. Storm surge alone killed 41 of those people, the report states.
The report concludes that maximum storm surge ranged between 10 and 15 feet above ground level on Fort Myers Beach and Estero Island.
“I think a lot of those deaths were avoidable,” Masters said. “The fact that Lee County waited so long to issue an evacuation warning is of concern.”
The death toll is also an indication of how many people were in harm’s way, he said. Increased development in risky areas like the barrier islands means officials will have to do a better job of getting people out, Masters said.
In Lee County, more than 5,000 structures were destroyed. In Fort Myers Beach alone, an estimated 900 structures are gone. Ian also washed away roads and bridges to Sanibel and Pine Islands, the report states.
In central and eastern Florida, where rainfall totals were 10 to 20 inches, 12 people died from freshwater flooding, the report states. The Peace, Myakka and Alafia rivers reached record flooding from heavy rainfall, the report states.
With the report’s findings that the storm briefly reached Category 5 strength, Ian joins an infamous list of 38 other Atlantic hurricanes to attain that status in recorded history. Hurricane Lorenzo in 2019 was the last cyclone to become a Category 5, according to Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami.
While it’s now enshrined in meteorological history as a Category 5, the National Hurricane Center said there’s “little practical difference” between a high-end Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds and a low-end Category 5 storm with 161 mph winds. The damage will still be widespread and immense regardless of how it’s classified.
“From a practical stand point, it doesn’t matter,” McNoldy said in a phone interview Monday. “Nothing would have changed any of the preparations.”
For days, all of Florida watched as Ian intensified on its way to Florida’s west coast. Initial forecasts had the Tampa Bay area in the middle of the Hurricane Center’s forecast cone, however, the storm’s eventual landfall two days later fell about 75 miles to the south.
Despite this, the report noted the “cone of uncertainty” contained Ian’s eventual landfall in all its forecasts.
“In general, storms that parallel a coastline tend to be more challenging to predict because a small change in heading can cause large differences in the landfall location,” the report states. “Ian was an example of this particular challenge.”