Ian ravaged one of the fastest-growing areas in the U.S.

By Thomas Frank, Daniel Cusick | 09/29/2022 06:44 AM EDT

Explosive construction on the west coast of Florida has created new communities during a long absence of hurricanes. Ian rammed into those high-value targets as the state is gripped by an insurance crisis.

Tampa Bay is drained of water by Hurricane Ian.

Sisters Angel Disbrow (right) and Selena Disbrow walked along the shore of a receded Tampa Bay in Florida as water was pulled out from the bay in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Wednesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Hurricane Ian’s path of destruction cut through some of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, pulverizing communities whose populations have doubled and tripled in recent decades during a period of deceptive atmospheric calm.

Ian made landfall Wednesday afternoon off the coast of Lee County, Fla., where the population has more than doubled since 1990 to nearly 800,000 residents.

Counties in Ian’s path through west and central Florida include Osceola, whose population has nearly tripled since 1990, and Sumter, where an influx of people has pushed its population to over three times what it was 30 years ago.


The “extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,” as NOAA’s National Hurricane Center described Ian, potentially flooded hundreds of thousands of homes without flood insurance — maybe millions — and wrecked countless buildings erected under lax construction standards.

“The story of Florida is the story of development happening at times and places where it probably shouldn’t,” said Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters.

Ian developed as a rare triple threat, causing destruction with winds of 155 miles per hour, storm surge of 12 feet, and two feet or more of rainfall that flooded inland areas. Ian strengthened Wednesday to a Category 4 storm, with its howling winds almost reaching the mythic status of Category 5, which starts at 157 mph. Only four Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. since 1900.

“This is going to be a storm we talk about for many years to come,” National Weather Service Director Ken Graham said at a briefing Wednesday. Ian will cause devastation “not just on the southwest coast [of Florida] but also inland.”

Ian weakened overnight to a tropical storm with 65 mph winds as it moved northeast across the Florida peninsula toward the Atlantic. It’s forecast to make a second landfall in South Carolina near the Georgia line Friday afternoon.

The storm will expose a wide range of vulnerabilities in the nation’s most hurricane-prone state including a failing property insurance market, a widespread lack of flood insurance and breakneck development.

Florida has some of the nation’s strongest statewide building codes, which were adopted after Hurricane Andrew demolished southwest Florida in 1992. But the new codes didn’t take effect until 2001 and apply only to structures that were built or substantially repaired since then.

“The level of damage is typically going to be directly related to the year the home was built,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Florida-based Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.

The new codes “should be a very positive factor” on limiting damage to homes that were built under them, Chapman-Henderson said. But with Ian’s winds hitting 155 miles per hour, the damage to buildings “will still be extraordinary.”

The rainfall forecast also is alarming because it will create massive flooding in inland areas where few people have flood insurance, said Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the past head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

CoreLogic Inc., a real estate analytics firm, projected that 7.2 million homes in Florida — worth a combined $1.6 trillion — are at risk of being damaged by flash flooding.

Flood insurance is sold separately from standard homeowners’ policies, and only a small number of people buy flood coverage.

Florida has one of the highest rates of flood coverage in the U.S., according to FEMA. But the policies are concentrated in flood-prone coastal regions such as the Miami area, where federal law requires many property owners to have flood insurance because they are in a high-risk zone.

“Most of the inland flooding from heavy rain is going to be in places that are not inside the mandatory purchase requirement area,” Fugate said in an interview.

“When you start dumping a foot or more rain in Orlando, there’s a potential for a lot of flooding,” he added.

Orange County, the landlocked central Florida county that includes Orlando, has roughly the same number of people as Palm Beach County on the southeast coast — about 1.5 million. But only a fraction of those inland residents have flood policies.

In Palm Beach, more than 115,000 households have federal flood insurance, according to FEMA records analyzed by E&E News. In Orange County, fewer than 12,000 households have flood coverage.

The widespread lack of flood insurance could force federal taxpayers to spend billions of dollars in disaster aid that gives households money for minor home repairs and other emergency expenses.

At the same time, Ian’s wind damage will generate tens of billions of dollars in insurance claims on Florida’s struggling private-sector property insurance companies. Six insurers in Florida have been declared insolvent this year, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to buy coverage through a state-backed insurer of last resort (Climatewire, Sept. 19).

Hurricane Ian “is only going to push it further off the cliff,” Webber of Florida Conservation Voters said of Florida’s insurance market.

Ian also is drawing attention to Florida’s overlooked west coast, which has seen some of the state’s fastest development and the creation of new metropolitan areas such as Cape Coral-Fort Myers, where Ian made landfall at 3:05 p.m. Wednesday.

“There has just been the creation of entire new towns that are on the northern frontier of the Everglades,” said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University’s School of Architecture and an expert on Florida development patterns.

Keenan pointed to San Carlos Park, a roughly 5-square-mile exurb of Fort Myers that today is home to 18,000 people and has helped make Lee County one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties.

Keenan said explosive growth in communities like San Carlos Park can be directly tied to the passage of Florida’s Community Planning Act of 2011, which returned most decisionmaking authority over land use and development to local authorities.

The state Department of Community Affairs, which coordinated and helped enforce local development plans, was eliminated as a stand-alone agency, and its growth management responsibilities were placed under a newly created Department of Economic Opportunity.

“From a long-range planning point of view, much of what we see today in southwest Florida should not be there,” said Tim Chapin, a professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.

“The result is a sort of a poorly planned, real-estate profit-oriented place from the beginning,” Chapin said. “When you put that together with a massive storm, you’re coming up with a place with a very low resilience score from the start.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story included an incorrect comparison of the populations of Orange County and Palm Beach County in Florida. The two counties have roughly the same population of 1.5 million.