Hurricane Ian flooded Florida, and climate change only made it worse

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Barbara Liz-Ortiz tried everything she could to bring down her little daughter’s fever, giving the child fluids and even a cold shower. The one thing she didn’t have was medicine and she couldn’t leave her home to get any.

Like thousands of Floridians who weathered Hurricane Ian, Liz-Ortiz was trapped at home — not by devastating winds or storm surge, but by catastrophic flooding.

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

Ian drenched some areas with up to 17 inches of rain as it trudged across the state Wednesday and Thursday. Floodwaters poured out of scenic lakes, ponds and rivers and into homes, forcing emergency evacuations and rescues that continued into Friday.

Scientists who study floods, development and climate change were horrified by the new images, but not surprised. For years, they have warned that sprawling development in Florida and other coastal states is not sustainable, especially with the warming climate allowing for hurricanes.

“It’s kind of what we expected for days in advance, and it’s still heartbreaking to see so many people stranded,” said Kevin Reed, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University in New York.

He and other experts said they expect Ian’s devastation to lead to a push for Florida to do more to protect residents from future flooding as a warming climate makes natural disasters and rainfall more extreme.

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“None of this is surprising,” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor in Cornell University’s urban and regional planning department. “How much does it take for us to want to make a change? Our policies and our choices have brought us to this point.”

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

“This is one of the clearest indicators of how climate change is affecting storms,” ​​Reed said. It may not seem like much, but two inches on top of an already large amount of rainfall makes a huge impact. Over just one acre, that’s an additional 12.5 million gallons of water.

Across the region, stream gauges rose, in some cases to record highs.

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

The county sheriff’s office responded to 600 calls for rescue, said spokesman Andrew Gant. A man died while waiting to be rescued from rapidly rising water inside his home when he slipped and fell, the water rising over him before he could 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 had been living in an RV on their property near Myakka City, where they planned to build a home. On Thursday, they were huddled safely in a flat at the top of their barn after the flooding Myakka River forced its way into a stream behind their land, sending several meters of water over it overnight Wednesday and into tomorrow. The river had been near flood stage before the hurricane, then rose 8 feet in less than 24 hours.

“Right now, we’re still kind of in survival mode,” said Berry, a paramedic who also runs a non-profit animal rescue. “We’re actually more 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 make do as best they could with their menagerie of rescue animals, split between the apartment and a horse trailer, she said, but their horses were wading with no way to get them to drier ground.

They “lost everything,” she said. It is their family’s second such disaster. Their home and possessions were destroyed by the 2013 Black Forest wildfire in Colorado.

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 occurred in more developed communities like the one where Liz-Ortiz has lived for nine years. Researchers said it underscores the need for better planning.

Land use practices directly affect Florida’s ability to withstand water events, said John Dickson, president of the national Aon Edge Insurance Company.

“We can’t stop cyclone events or stop the rain from falling, but we can build communities that are better able to withstand these events,” Dickson said. “We need to think about a more resilient structure and we need to create a plan to deal with these events. the water and move it away from our people and our families and our property.”

“Mother Nature keeps telling us that homes don’t belong where we built them, yet we continue to build homes where they don’t belong.”

The speed of the water’s rise 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 had been flooded and they were afraid to risk getting their other vehicle out of the garage and driving it through deep water to a pharmacy.

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

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

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

Florida faces ‘painful choices’ about future development

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

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

The state may have to accept the fact that if they’re going to have water over land, they’re going to have to build at a higher elevation, he said.

Berginnis said it will be “interesting” to see if Ian’s massive flooding prompts the kind of rule changes for floodplain development that Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 brought about in improvements to building codes.

There are “no easy solutions” in a state like Florida that attracts development to boost its coffers through property taxes, Shi said. It pits cities against each other, so officials fear that if they require building to a higher standard, the developer will take a project to the next city.

“There are many places where people want to make the right decisions,” she said. “It’s going to be really painful choices about preempting development or requiring development to meet higher standards. There’s a lot of accounting for how long this can be sustained.”

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. She can be contacted at dpulver@gannett.com or at @dinahvp on Twitter.

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