The National Hurricane Center warned Tuesday that Ian could bring up to 12 feet of storm surge to a wide stretch of shoreline south of Tampa Bay, including Sarasota and Charlotte counties – as well as 4 to 6 feet along the bay itself, where cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg would be particularly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding should a storm hit them directly.
The hurricane center 5 p.m. forecast moved Ian’s potential landing farther south than expected. Still, meteorologists have warned that the path remains uncertain and the storm will cause damage far from its eye. “[A]canceling a major and destructive hurricane for Florida seems highly unlikely,” they wrote.
Tampa Bay in particular embodies a trend that has alarmed climate scientists, disaster experts and emergency planners: People, infrastructure and investment have flocked to coasts that are susceptible to powerful storms, just as they have made toward wildfire-prone rural western areas.
Number of Climate-fueled disasters in the United States with $1 billion or more in damages is surgefederal agencies have noted, a trend that is largely a factor of more money and investments being poured into places vulnerable to climate risks. Keeping people safe in these communities is vexing to the federal government, which spends billions each year on disaster recovery — and to local governments, which should derive revenue from development in at-risk locations.
Emergency planners have long identified the Tampa Bay area as a place where even a weak hurricane could cause billions of dollars in damage due to the large number of houses and other buildings placed on vulnerable land. Some experts fear Ian could make those worries real.
“It may break the bank,” Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, said of the hurricane. “The question is, ‘What does breaking the bank look like? “”
Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, has more than decade-old post-disaster redevelopment plan which calls for buildings to be moved away from places that climate change is making unsuitable for life. These plans contrast with the current reality: development continues rapidly and more people have moved to Tampa, which, like other Florida communities, have become boomtowns as Americans sought a sunnier, carefree life during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even if Ian’s eye avoids a direct hit over Tampa Bay, forecasters say it could create unprecedented storm surge, flooding and damage.
Tampa Bay, Florida’s second-largest metropolitan area, has not been directly affected by a major hurricane in over a century. This chance always thought to run out. Development patterns have acted otherwise – nearly a quarter of Tampa residents live in the floodplain, according to researchers at the University of South Florida. By 2035, more than 41% will live there.
Tampa-area developers are evaluating plans to build affordable housing right in the middle of the 100-year-old floodplain, which means an area has a 1% annual risk of flooding — though climate change is blurring that probability, said RJ Lehmann, the senior editor of the International Center for Law and Economics, based in Petersburg, Fla., where he focuses on insurance.
Many private property insurers fled Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992seeing only inconvenience in operating in such a disaster- and flood-prone state plagued by claims disputes. The market is still in tatters three decades laterwith six private property insurers going bankrupt this year alone. This drove more homeowners to the state-created Citizens Property Insurance Corp., whose the number of home, commercial and storm insurance policies doubled to more than one million in just two years despite rates that many residents consider unaffordable.
In the face of calls to fix the state system and reduce risk to taxpayers by keeping insurers in the state, lawmakers passed a bill last spring that Democrats condemned as a “gift” to insurance companies and Republicans acknowledged as a flawed solution. Other private insurers have since gone bankrupt.
“Rather than dealing with insurance, the legislature’s priority was to engage in all sorts of culture war issues — because apparently being mean to trans kids was more important,” Lehmann said.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this week dismissed criticism of the state’s insurance efforts, including the new legislation. “We’ve invested $2 billion in a fund to provide a safety net and prevent a lot of them from going out of business, and that’s an issue we’re going to continue to tackle,” he said. at a press conference on Monday.
Citizens’ spokesman Michael Peltier said in an email that the insurer is “financially self-sufficient” and “in a strong financial position.” But “if we exhaust our ability to pay claims,” he said, Citizens are “required to collect premiums” first from policyholders, then from other Florida insurance customers, such as auto and home insurance.
Disaster, however, could sweep through Florida’s economy, said Baughman McLeod, who oversaw Citizens when it worked under former state chief financial officer Alex Sink – a Democrat – in the early 2000s. Then, she said, the state would pay for the damage caused by the disaster. Other insurers could leak.
Meanwhile, any flood damage to Ian would further burden the National Flood Insurance Scheme, which already suffers from massive debt that it cannot repay.
Some climatologists are seeing signals that the effects of climate change could compound Ian’s destructive potential.
Michael Wehner, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in an email that the effect of climate change on Ian means it will “definitely rain more”, possibly increasing rainfall by 10 to 15 percent compared to a world without human-induced climate change. Water temperatures are also warmer than average, which could fuel a stronger storm. Climate change has also raised sea levels by a foot over the past century, making storm surges worse, said Gary Mitchum, associate dean of the College of Marine Sciences at the University of South Florida.
“Warmer water means you can have more evaporation and evaporation is what fuels the hurricane,” Mitchum said. “Warmer water should make a stronger hurricane.”
Florida isn’t the only state where natural disasters linked to global warming have begun to reveal ‘cracks in the system’, said Alice Hill, who worked on climate resilience in the former president’s White House. Barak Obama. She pointed to California, which insurers are threatening to quit to avoid covering wildfire damage.
California’s insurance regulator has forced companies to provide coverage for another year, but insurance policies are already getting expensive. Rising insurance costs could cause more homeowners to go “naked” — dropping coverage altogether — which would expose them and the state to huge losses in another disaster, Hill said. .
It’s a cycle that is set to repeat itself as climate change flares up in every pocket of the country.
“Humans can calculate their risk based on what they’ve seen in the past, not understanding that by definition climate change brings even bigger events,” said Hill, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen people move to areas that are more prone to hurricanes. They like to live near the coast. So it’s an interesting phenomenon. We could do better on many fronts.