The 2023 hurricane season is upon us. In Southwest Florida, however, scores of people are still struggling to overcome the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian.
Ian made landfall in Cayo Costa as a monster Category 4 storm in September. The hurricane scarred the Southwest Florida coastline and flattened homes and businesses along the shores of Fort Myers Beach in Lee County. Ian is the costliest storm in Florida’s history, with more than $109 billion in damage, and it killed at least 156 people — a staggering number of fatalities for a hurricane in the United States.
There are lessons to be gleaned from the rubble left behind, from the water marks that are as high as 15 feet branding Fort Myers buildings to the roads washed away as far as 50 miles inland in Arcadia because of river flooding. And there are the harrowing stories of those who escaped the worst of Ian — and those who did not.
Forecasters say the 2023 hurricane season may be milder than last year’s because of a strengthening El Niño. But as Ian showed, it only takes one storm to wreck a community.
Here are some lessons learned from Hurricane Ian, and how we can be prepared for the next one.
Storm surge is enemy No. 1
As much as any hurricane, Ian taught us that storm surge is a tropical system’s biggest threat.
The National Weather Service said Ian’s peak storm surge was 10 to 15 feet above ground level.
During Hurricane Ian’s assault, 41 people drowned in the storm surge — 36 of whom were in Lee County, according to a report from the National Hurricane Center.
For days leading up to Ian’s landfall, it appeared Ian would barrel straight into Tampa Bay. What if it had?
A Tampa Bay Times report found that about 20,000 more people live on Pinellas’ barrier islands compared to the Lee County barrier islands. Additionally, nearly 280,000 properties that aren’t on the barrier islands could flood in a Category 4 hurricane, compared to 220,000 in and around Fort Myers. In Tampa, there are nearly 80,000 properties the could flood, 40,000 in St. Petersburg and another 40,000 in Bradenton.
“You’re talking about water that can move houses off their foundations,” Cody Fritz, who leads the National Hurricane Center’s storm surge unit, told the Times. “If that isn’t an example of how powerful the water can be, I’m not really sure how to explain it.”
The main lesson: You should evacuate if your home is projected to be hit by storm surge as a hurricane approaches.
Rivers flooded across the state
While storm surge puts those on or near the coast at the most risk, Ian showed that the danger doesn’t end there. Ian crawled slowly across the state, dumping up to 20 inches of rain in some areas far inland.
Some of the state’s most beloved rivers, and the communities surrounding them, were flooded, including the Peace River in Arcadia, the St. Johns River on the east coast and the Kissimmee River, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee. Residents who lived miles from the coastline lost their homes to flooding.
The Peace River broke a century-old record on Oct. 1 when it reached nearly 24 feet — more than 3 feet higher than the record set in 1912, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Record flooding on the Peace River wasn’t only from Ian. Heavy rainfall in this weeks prior had already elevated the river.
River levels can fluctuate drastically throughout the year. In major floods like Ian, the district said, water can spread to neighborhoods that are normally dry.
People who live on or near rivers in the Tampa Bay area also have experienced flooding after tropical storms. A storm like Ian could cause severe flooding in those areas again.
The middle of the state can flood, too
Even in one of the most landlocked areas of the state, Ian caused flooding. Images of Orlando and other areas of Central Florida showed streets under water. Union Park, an area just outside Orlando, had 17.24 inches of rain, according to the weather service.
In Orange County, rescuers plucked people from floodwaters, including 200 patients at an assisted living facility.
Corey Knight, the city of Orlando’s public works director, said wind is usually the biggest threat from hurricanes that reach there. But he said Ian drenched the city for a full day.
“It happened for such a long period, too, that led to what affected us most, really,” Knight said.
Every topical storm is different, said Melissa Watson, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Melbourne office. A storm’s strength alone doesn’t determine how much rain it will produce. A slow-moving storm like Ian, for instance, likely will dump far more rain than a fast-moving one.
“Don’t take past experiences and say that ‘Oh, I’ve lived in this house for 30 years and I’ve never flooded,’” Watson said. “So even though in past events you didn’t sustain damage or didn’t have flooding, that doesn’t mean that a future system cannot produce such conditions.”
If you’re in the cone, be ready to evacuate
Tampa Bay was in the center of the hurricane center’s forecast cone three days ahead of Ian’s landfall, and it appeared our streak of 101 years without a direct hit from a hurricane was about to end.
But a shift spared Tampa Bay from the worst. Instead, Lee County took the brunt of it.
Though Lee County was on the edge of the forecast cone while Tampa Bay was in the middle, Ian’s eventual landfall was within each of the hurricane center’s forecast tracks. And forecasters say people who are anywhere within that cone — whether it be in the center or at the edges — should be equally ready to evacuate.
Evacuations in Tampa Bay began two days ahead of Ian’s landfall.
Mandatory evacuations in Lee County were issued 13 hours after Pinellas County’s first order, and 17 hours after Hillsborough began evacuations.
Thousands of people had just a day to get out. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Kevin Guthrie, the Florida director of emergency management, defended Lee County’s evacuation choices after the storm.
Lee County officials immediately issued evacuation orders after the weather service alerted them of the storm surge potential, Guthrie said.
It would have taken the county two days to evacuate everyone, Guthrie said. But two days prior to landfall, the center of the storm appeared headed north of Tampa Bay. The day before landfall, Ian’s forecast track shifted south, toward Lee County.
But even in the Tampa Bay area, officials were concerned by how few people showed up to shelters.
In Pinellas, nearly 400,000 people were ordered to evacuate. Emergency management expected about 35,000 people to arrive at shelters, but fewer than 6,000 did. In Hillsborough, about 8,000 people arrived at shelters, fewer than half of the anticipated number.
There are a number of reasons for this: Physical disabilities can make evacuating difficult, and financial restraints can burden poorer communities. Others are lulled into a false sense of security from years without a major storm in Tampa Bay.
“Our homes are considered our safe place, and we’d be much more comfortable if we could stay there,” said Cathie Perkins, the director of Pinellas County Emergency Management. “From a county emergency management perspective — we have to constantly weigh the risk of every storm against the ability for people to stay in place.”
With many storms, the hazards are greater than just the cone or a spaghetti model, Perkins said. How much rain will the storm bring? How far will winds extend? What will storm surge be like?
“We have to take all of these factors into consideration, and when we issue an evacuation order it’s because we feel that the community is at risk,” Perkins said.
Ian rapidly intensified. That’s becoming more common.
As Ian was barreling toward the west coast of Florida, it was passing over warm water that fed the storm’s ballooning strength.
In just 24 hours, Ian muscled from a Category 3 to a behemoth Category 5 storm (just the 39th storm in recorded history to reach that mammoth status).
Ian is an example of a what forecasters call rapid intensification, when a storm’s maximum sustained wind speeds increase by a least 35 mph in a day. It’s a growing problem, said Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer for Yale Climate Connections. Water temperatures have been consistently warming. Oceanic heat serves as fuel for the storms, he said.
Oceans have absorbed about 90% of the heat from human-made climate change — a third of which has gone into surface waters while the rest is stored in deeper waters, according to the Miami Herald.
Rapid intensification is difficult to predict, Henson added. Hurricane Ian’s intensity forecasts were worse than the average of the last five years, according to the hurricane center. Researchers said this was largely because Ian’s rapid strengthening made intensity forecasting more difficult.
Tampa Bay’s location is a problem
Hurricanes are especially precarious for residents in the Tampa Bay area, where the smallest shift in the track can be the area’s salvation or ruin. Storms that move along a coast pose a particular challenge for forecasters.
It’s one reason Hurricane Ian’s track was difficult to pin down.
“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 hurricane center said in its final report on Ian. “Ian was an example of this particular challenge.”
Days after the storm, Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University, likened Ian to a pebble in a stream — a number of factors, like a low pressure system and Ian’s burgeoning strength, influenced the storm’s eventual landfall. And when it comes to areas of Florida’s highly populated west coast, the smallest change in track means a major change in human impact.
In this instance, Tampa Bay was spared at the expense of Lee County.
Officials aren’t trying to scare you for no reason
In a sobering moment on Sept. 26, Jamie Rhome, the acting hurricane center director at the time, finished a forecast with a warning:
“I want to end on this, unless you’re behind me in this building, you’re not a hurricane expert. If emergency managers order you to leave, then you need to do so, without question and without delay,” Rhome said.
The same day, a meteorologist told the Tampa Bay Times that Ian had the potential to be a “historic catastrophe.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis had declared a state of emergency for Florida the weekend prior.
Leaders in Tampa Bay were serious in their warnings. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Ian was “going to be a storm like we have not seen in the past.” In St. Petersburg, Mayor Ken Welch said he had not felt as uneasy about a storm since Hurricane Charley in 2004.
The message was clear: Be prepared and evacuate if necessary.
“People look at the last hurricane, or the last couple of hurricanes and they think — ‘Well, you know, I’ve been in this situation before, they called an evacuation and we didn’t have surge,’” Perkins said.
It’s part of a larger message Perkins is pushing for people to understand this hurricane season. Once Tampa Bay is in a forecast cone, the area could start seeing tropical conditions within three to five days — it’s like a giant countdown, she said.
“That’s when we need to make sure that everybody is making sure that they’re ready,” Perkins said. “That they have their plan set, and that they know that when those winds start to impact us, they’re ready to protect themselves in the best place possible.”
Just because a number of storms missed us in the past doesn’t mean the next one won’t be a direct hit. And if that’s the case and people disregard evacuation orders until it’s too late, the results will be tragic.
“Time is the one resource you can not get more of,” Perkins said.
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.
PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.
PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.