Hurricane Ian flooded Florida and climate change only made it worse

Barbara Liz-Ortiz did everything she could to bring down her young daughter’s fever, giving her fluids and even a cold shower. The only thing she didn’t have was medicine, and she couldn’t leave her house to get it.

Like thousands of Floridians who withstood Hurricane Ian, Liz-Ortiz was trapped at home – not by devastating winds or storm surges but by catastrophic floods.

“We can’t leave the house,” Liz-Ortiz said Thursday, when her family and many neighbors were stranded when water storage areas overflowed at their Buena Ventura Lakes townsite in Kissimmee, Florida.

Ian soaked some areas with up to 17 inches of rain as he drove through the state on Wednesday and Thursday. Floodwaters poured out of scenic lakes, ponds and rivers and into homes, forcing emergency evacuations and rescues that continued through Friday.

Researchers who study floods, development and climate change were horrified by the emerging images but not surprised. For years, they’ve warned that sprawling development in Florida and other coastal states is unsustainable, especially with global warming fueling hurricanes.

“This is kind of what we’ve been expecting for days, and it’s still heartbreaking to see so many people stranded,” said Kevin Reed, associate professor of atmospheric science at Stony Brook University in New York.

He and other experts said they expected Ian’s devastation to push Florida to do more to protect residents from future flooding, as global warming causes natural disasters and more extreme precipitation.

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“None of this is surprising,” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cornell University. “How long does it take for us to want to make a change? Our policies and choices have gotten us to this point.”

Reed and his colleagues recently published a study of all hurricanes in the 2020 season and concluded that climate change adds up to 10% more rain to today’s hurricanes. On Thursday, they used the same models to compare Ian’s rainfall and concluded it was at least 10% higher than it would have been without global warming.

“This is one of the clearest indicators of the impact of climate change on storms,” ​​Reed said. It might not seem like a lot, but two inches above an already significant amount of precipitation has a huge impact. Over an acre is still 12.5 million gallons of water.

Across the region, flux gauges have soared, in some cases to record heights.

Ian’s heavy rains also exacerbated the effects of a few feet of storm surge on Florida’s east coast. At New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County, the combination of rising tides and more than 15 inches of rain caused a creek to rise nine feet in 12 hours. More than half a dozen weather stations in the county reported double-digit rainfall, according to the National Weather Service.

The county sheriff’s office responded to 600 calls for help, spokesman Andrew Gant said. A man died while waiting to be rescued from rapidly rising water inside his home when he slipped and fell and the water rose above him before he he can’t get up.

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A similar combination of rain and storm surge continued to prompt water rescues Friday in Flagler County, Florida.

In Manatee County, Tracy Berry, her husband and three children lived in an RV on their property near Myakka City where they planned to build a home. They were safely huddled in an apartment on top of their barn on Thursday after flooding from the Myakka River cut its way into a stream behind their land and sent several feet of water there overnight. Wednesday and in the morning. The river was near flood stage before the hurricane, then rose 8 feet in less than 24 hours.

“Right now we’re still in survival mode,” said Berry, a paramedic who also runs a nonprofit animal rescue. “We’re actually better prepared than some, since I’m a first responder.”

A combination of strong winds and water destroyed her husband’s shop and other small buildings. The family would do their best with their menagerie of rescue animals, split between the apartment and a horse trailer, she said, but their horses were floundering with no way to get them to drier ground.

They “lost everything,” she says. This is the second such disaster for their family. Their home and belongings were destroyed by the 2013 Colorado Black Forest Wildfire.

What can Florida learn from Hurricane Ian?

While Berry lives in an idyllic setting in rural Manatee County, much of the flooding in central Florida has been in more developed communities like the one where Liz-Ortiz has lived for nine years. The researchers said this highlights the need for better planning.

Land use practices have a direct impact on Florida’s ability to withstand aquatic events, said John Dickson, president of national insurance company Aon Edge.

“We can’t stop hurricane events or prevent rain from falling, but we can build communities that are better able to withstand those events,” Dickson said. “We need to think about a more resilient structure and we need to come up with a plan to manage the water and get it away from our people, our families and our property.”

People weren't the only ones rescued by the Orange County Sheriff's Office during Hurricane Ian's massive flooding in central Florida on September 29, 2022.

“Mother Nature keeps telling us that houses don’t belong where we built them, and yet we keep building houses where they don’t belong.”

The speed of the water rising along their street and around their backyard shocked Liz-Ortiz. A US Geological Survey gauge in a creek near their area showed a rise of 6 feet in less than 12 hours.

Liz-Ortiz said her husband’s car was flooded and they were afraid to risk pulling their other vehicle out of the garage and driving it through deep water to a drugstore.

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Before the storm, they felt safe in their home, confident in its ability to withstand the forecast winds, she said. They didn’t think the rain would be a problem. A neighbor had seen water down the street in a previous hurricane, she said, but never this high.

Liz-Ortiz said state and local authorities should require building practices that reduce the risk of flooding and help homes be more water resistant.

Developers are building homes “homes wherever they can,” she said. “They need to think more about people’s safety, especially when there are so many hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Florida faces ‘painful choices’ over its future development

Several experts said this week that Florida’s elevation makes it harder for rain to drain away and makes it easier to move a storm surge farther inland, a base gravity that should have been more taken into account as the state developed.

Whether a stormwater system is designed for rain that might occur once every 25 years or rain that might occur every 100 years, the system would likely be overwhelmed with rain like Ian’s, said said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. .

The state may have to come to terms with the fact that if it wants to have water on land, it will have to build at a higher elevation, he said.

The Paws N Hooves FL office and barn are surrounded by water near Myakka City, Florida after heavy rains from Hurricane Ian.

Berginnis said it will be “interesting” to see if the massive Ian floods cause the kind of rule changes for floodplain development that the destruction of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 caused in code improvements to the building.

There are “no easy fixes” in a state like Florida that attracts development to augment its budget coffers through property taxes, Shi said. This pits towns against each other, so officials fear that if they need to build to higher standards, the developer will take a project to the neighboring town.

“There are a lot of places where people would like to make the right decisions,” she said. “It will be a really painful choice whether to forgo development or demand that developments meet higher standards.

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at [email protected] or @dinahvp on Twitter.

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