Grappling with Catastrophe After the Tsunami-Like Surge from Category-4 Hurricane Ian Meets Fast-Growing Florida
This is a worst-case clash between an explosive storm and communities that grew explosively in a hurricane hiatus.
10/2/22 - On October 1, I interviewed Jo Muller, a climate scientist at Florida Gulf Coast University who's been revealing past patterns of hurricane activity along Florida's west coast: "An Expert on Past Hurricanes Explains Ian's Catastrophic Impact on Southwest Florida." Read her most relevant paper: "Intense Southwest Florida hurricane landfalls over the past 1000 years."
On September 28, as Hurricane Ian was approaching the coast, I squeezed in a popup interview on the storm and the political and development landscape in its damage zone with longtime Florida environmental journalist Craig Pittman (@craigtimes), who was hunkered in a hotel in Largo while Hurricane Ian surged across the state. Watch and share!
I'll be adding live updates to this post as Hurricane Ian surges through Florida and up toward the Carolinas. (The wind visualization is via earth.nullschool.net.)
Original post, September 28, 2022
As had been forecast for days, Hurricane Ian, striking the coast just below worst-case Category 5 strength after heat-amped rapid intensification (see the AP here), is exacting a terrible toll on Florida.
As the National Weather Service tweeted this morning:
Catastrophic rainfall and flooding.
These are the last hours to prepare or escape before conditions worsen and #Ian arrives in south and central Florida.
The recipe for catastrophe? Superimpose roof-shredding winds up to 155 miles per hour with tsunami-scale storm surges of 6 to 16 feet and massive inland deluges on a southwest Florida landscape where communities have explosively grown in recent decades without many hurricane hits.
Ian gives fresh force to the meteorologists' mantra, "It only takes one" as it follows an extraordinarily quiet first half of the Atlantic storm season.
Here's hoping communities in harm's way are heeding evacuation orders.
This is a zoomed-in look at the National Hurricane Center's live map of warnings as of Wednesday morning (click here for the full map and updates). That red and purple area will see awful damage.
Ahead of the surge, Brett Adair (@alastormtracker) tweeted a chilling video clip and said, "Charlotte Harbor is going in reverse…" The low pressure offshore was pulling at the sea before the storm's arrival. (This imagery unavoidably reminded me of my reporting on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.)
Inserted tweet, 3:30 pm ET - Here's the inundation level in Fort Myers Beach, via Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes:
Read on for look at how much communities have grown in Florida's hurricane hot zones, the threats they face from water and wind, followed by some useful tools and tactics to apply when scouring headlines around catastrophic storms in a human-heated climate.
Growth in a danger zone during a hurricane lull
Here's a growth map of Ian target Cape Coral, tweeted today by Stephen M. Strader (@stephenmstrader), the Villanova University geographer who's co-developed the invaluable "expanding bull's eye" analysis of the intersection of hazards and development.
I tweeted this last night about Sarasota County, which is not quite dead center in the danger zone now, but close: "Sarasota, with a decades-long hurricane-landfall gap like Tampa, has expanded from ~28,000 to 438,000 since 1950. If the 1944 hurricane hit today, orders of magnitude more potential loss with or without climate change. Cut CO2, but cut vulnerability too."
Hurricane gusts meet vulnerable housing
David Roueche (@auburn_windengr), an Auburn University engineering professor focused on engineering solutions facing natural hazards, posted invaluable guidance on Twitter on the potential for structural damage in the Hurricane Ian danger zone. Here was the good news:
"Florida's building codes are one of the best in the US, and design wind speeds in the area of impact are 140-150 mph. Peak wind loads are then expected to be roughly 1- (130/140)^2 = 15% below design for a typical building."
Here was the bad:
"However, (1) many buildings were not constructed to these modern building codes (although Charley (2004) may have caused some to be repaired/strengthened to more modern standards)....
(2) The building envelope (e.g., roof cover) is by far the most likely to be damaged, and we still see poor wind performance of the common materials used even in newer buildings. Without secondary water barriers (e.g. sealed roof deck), economic losses are high from such damage."
For more detail and images explore his Twitter thread.
Water kills, including far from coasts
Wind gets all the attention, but it's water that kills in such catastrophes.
In a seminal 2016 study of the 2,500 deaths in the United States attributed to tropical cyclones over a 50-year span, longtime National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Rappaport and B. Wayne Blanchard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that "Almost 90 percent of them resulted from excessive stormwater. Storm surge incidents accounted for about half of the deaths, while flood events from rain took close to one-quarter of the lives."
Even if coastal residents evacuate inland, people can face a deadly threat from flash flooding, which exists across Florida in the coming hours. Getting to safety can be unsafe if drivers neglect to heed "turn around, don't drown" warnings.
I'll be adding much more here through the day.
A mental model for clarity amid climate debates
As you sift headlines and claims about climate change and potent storms, it's worth keeping the "expanding bull's eye" concept in mind as a way to pause and consider all the factors driving destruction or boosting risk in such events.
Stephen Strader's research, mostly with Walker Ashley of Northern Illinois University, first caught my eye in 2017 while I was writing about Hurricane Harvey in this ProPublica story: "Development and Disasters — A Deadly Combination Well Beyond Houston."
As he told me then, "What gets lost in climate change debates is that society is changing, too.”
In most of the world, most of the time, those societal changes have actually been positive, including in tropical-cyclone zones - which is why weather-related disasters have plunged since 1970 (World Health Organization). Read this 2020 analysis of why Bangladesh no longer suffers mass casualties in cyclones by Ilan Kelman and Bayes Ahmed of University College London.
When you see stories using loss and damage as a metric of climate change, stop and consider what other factors are in play besides any change in storm behavior linked to global warming. This card I put together tries to consolidate some of what I've learned over the years from climate and disaster scientists like Laurens Bouwer, Diana Liverman, Lisa Schipper, Samanthan Montano, Ilan Kelman, and more.
Another valuable guide, for 20 years, has been Roger A. Pielke, Jr. (@rogerpielkejr), of the University of Colorado, Boulder. In the friendly-fire wars over climate policy, he has been attacked far too often for pointing out background realities that don't fit the conventional climate emergency frame.
I've long urged students and friends trying to forge progress on tough issues to follow some people whose views might not align with their own but whose work is grounded in data. Before your blast shields go up, please consider that advice.
Here's his look at hurricane losses in the United States from 1900 to 2021:
As Pielke has tracked for many years, global financial losses in weather-related disasters continue to decrease when tracked as a percentage of total economic activity. Here's his latest graph of that data:
I hope you'll explore his series "Making sense of trends in disaster losses."
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