More Floridians are in the way of hurricanes
Florida needs to get its collective mind around how to handle two truths: People keep coming here — and so do hurricanes. The state is home to nearly 23 million residents, and it’s growing fast, adding about 800 more every day. That means more people in the way when storms roar ashore. More people means more homes, more cars and more stuff for hurricanes to destroy. It’s the opposite of a virtuous cycle, one that will only get worse if we don’t make better decisions.
In just the last decade, the state’s population grew by more than 3.1 million people. That’s like everyone in Arkansas moving to Florida in just 10 years. The state could easily add another 3 million over the next decade. The spigot is hard to turn off even if we wanted to, and there are many reasons we wouldn’t want to, including the potentially calamitous economic fallout, at least in the short and medium term.
All those new residents aren’t spreading evenly across the state. Most wind up in our already most-populated counties, and most of those counties are coastal. In fact, 8 of the 10 most populated counties have at least some coastline, either on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico or Tampa Bay. And 7 of the 10 fastest-growing counties over the last decade are coastal, too. In other words, more people are moving into some of the areas most vulnerable to hurricanes.
Take Lee County, one of the state’s most populated and fastest growing. It added 178,000 residents over the last 10 years. That’s 178,000 more people in the way of last year’s Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms to strike Florida in modern history. No wonder it was also one of the costliest. The storm had 178,000 more people in just one county to terrorize, destroying their homes, their cars and their boats and, in some cases, taking their lives.
Sea levels are rising and the oceans are warming, but the main reason hurricanes do so much more damage than even just 50 years ago is that so many more of us are in the way. The bowling balls are largely the same, but there are a lot more pins for them to knock down. Barrier islands were once just that: barriers against storms. Now, many of them are packed with people. They are less of a bulwark against the sea than an engine of economic prosperity, along with many coastal communities. They are a main attraction for residents and tourists. We rely on the taxes they collect. That juxtaposition makes figuring out how to balance the financial benefits against the hurricane risks all the harder.
While the number of hurricanes — and major hurricanes — that make landfall in the continental U.S. remains fairly steady, research suggests that future storms could move slower, spend more time over populated areas and pack more rainfall, all of which could result in more damage, especially flooding, much like Hurricane Harvey, which dropped more than 50 inches of rain on one part of the greater Houston area in 2017.
The recent moves in some communities to promote widespread resiliency, harden homes and increase housing density at higher elevations to house all the newcomers are helpful. So are the conversations — and that’s mostly all they are at the moment — about how best to pull back from the most vulnerable areas. For the most part, the solutions won’t come easily.
Hurricane Idalia skirted Florida’s most populated areas, but the powerful storm is just the latest reminder that we have consciously put ourselves in harm’s way. Think of the widespread flooding Idalia caused in the Tampa Bay area, despite the storm making landfall 150 miles to the north. Now we have to figure out better ways to mitigate the ongoing risk. The hurricanes will keep coming, and more of us will be in the way.
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