Floridians are still picking up from Hurricane Idalia, and it could be days if not weeks before authorities, residents and insurers have an accurate grasp of the damage from the storm. Still, as the cleanup continues this holiday weekend, Idalia has already provided three early lessons that Florida should learn and benefit from as the Atlantic hurricane season enters its peak.
Hardening property. “Resiliency” has gone from a buzzword to a business, as homeowners and governments alike explore how a growing state in hurricane alley can protect trillions of dollars in property and infrastructure from high winds and flooding. In the Tampa Bay area alone last week, thousands of residents lined up to collect sandbags — an old and (somewhat) effective defense that needs to be reimagined for the modern times on a much larger scale. Cities and counties across Florida are doing just that — writing resiliency plans to harden their communities and hiring staff to carry them out. But creating anything resembling effective, natural barriers is a massive undertaking that will take years, billions of dollars and unprecedented coordination between the public and private sectors. Still, the trick is starting now, by building stronger, higher up and away from the water. That will require thinking big, but sometimes acting small, to address the specific vulnerabilities in every city.
Handling claims. One commitment needs to be crystal clear already: Those hurt by Idalia cannot be victimized again by slow, indifferent and predatory insurers. Florida tolerated way too much of this abuse after Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida last year, when even months after the storm, tens of thousands of property claims remained open, while tens of thousands more were closed with no payment from the insurance companies. An investigation by The Washington Post found that some insurance carriers were aggressively seeking to limit payouts to policyholders by altering the work of licensed adjusters, ultimately leaving homeowners to foot their repair bills. Some policyholders had their Hurricane Ian claims reduced by 45% to 97%. Floridians accept the risks of living in the Sunshine State and pay dearly for their insurance coverage. They cannot be ignored or blindsided by the industry as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
Faster decisions. Idalia formed into a hurricane overnight Monday, growing quickly from a disjointed system between Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and Cuba and moving toward Florida. While forecasters had expected Idalia to strengthen into a major hurricane and to threaten Florida’s gulf coast, the storm was out of mind for many Floridians last weekend. Forecasters also feared that Idalia would rapidly intensify thanks to higher-than-usual water temperatures in the gulf. Some early research shows that the number of storms that strengthen a lot — that is, gain more than 60 mph in wind speeds in 24 hours — has increased significantly. In other words, the window for authorities and residents alike to make life-and-death decisions could be shrinking, at least for some storms. Who should evacuate? Where and how high is the storm surge? Are we facing a Category 1 hurricane or a Category 3? And an ever-growing population means more people to potentially evacuate, which means it can take longer to get them all out of harm’s way. That, too, adds pressure to already complicated decisions.
FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, the nation’s top emergency manager, said in a briefing on Idalia this week that the powerful storms, fires and flooding across the country are the “new normal” with a changing climate. Idalia will add to that understanding over the coming months, and the experience will help Florida and the nation better prepare for this era of extreme weather.
Hurricane-prone Florida, though, has a particular stake in getting disaster preparedness right. That begins with asking the right questions as these storms evolve. Hurricanes may be an act of nature, but managing their risk is our responsibility, and an essential obligation if Florida is to prosper and grow.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.