Analysis of the passage of Hurricane Ian through Florida 3:52
Stephen Strader is an associate professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University.
His studies focus on how human environments are vulnerable to natural disasters.
The opinions expressed in this article belong exclusively to its author.
After hours of battling Hurricane Ian's high winds, torrential rains and storm surges of 10 feet in some places, residents are left with nothing but to pick up the pieces.
In the hours and days after Ian, the true destruction will be revealed, shedding light on the hardest hit areas.
Residents who did not evacuate are facing life-threatening conditions, while emergency services are dealing with an overwhelming volume of calls from those in need of help.
Unfortunately, this scene is all too common in the state of Florida.
Thirty years ago, Florida's Miami-Dade County was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, causing more than $50 billion in losses (adjusted for inflation), destroying more than 60,000 homes, and leaving more than 170,000 homeless people.
Hurricane Ian may have caused up to $47 billion in insured losses, according to a property analysis company
Following Andrew's passing, the federal government enacted a plan to improve the quality of Florida home construction, equipping the state with some of the strictest building codes in the country.
Although Florida's improved building standards may have provided some protection against damage and enhanced the survivability of those in the path of the storms that followed, other disaster factors, such as the rapid and uncontrolled growth of population and climate change have tipped the scales of disasters in the wrong direction.
Going back to the early 1910s, a man named Carl Fisher (best known as the automobile magnate responsible for building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) decided to take a vacation to what is now known as Miami Beach.
He quickly realized the opportunity to make money, buying, clearing and filling in thousands of acres of swamps and mangroves to make way for new beachfront property, where investors would wait their turn for the foreseeable future to build homes and hotels for those who were looking for a piece of paradise.
In developing the area, Fisher replaced the wetlands and mangroves that function as natural sponges, protecting inland areas from cyclone waters, with hardened, impermeable surfaces that would continue to bear the weight of hurricanes like Andrew and now Ian.
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Unfortunately, this pattern of rapid development along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has continued into the 21st century, leaving the terrain open to disaster.
For example, the population of Florida has grown almost 60% since Hurricane Andrew, twice as fast as the national average in that same period, according to an analysis of data from the US Census Bureau.
The increase in population leads to a greater number of dwellings.
In fact, the number of homes in Florida has nearly doubled, from 5.7 million in 1990 to 10 million in 2020, according to government data.
But why is this important for risk events like Hurricane Ian?
The fact is that the more people are exposed to a natural hazard like a hurricane, the more likely it is that a major disaster will occur.
As our population and built environment grow and expand, we more easily put ourselves in harm's way.
The wetlands and mangroves that previously acted as natural "shock absorbers" for the rising waters and waves that accompany hurricanes are shrinking or have disappeared.
They have been replaced by residential areas.
You may be wondering what the difference is between a natural hazard and a catastrophe.
Before we go any further, let's define them.
Generally speaking, a hazard is a geophysical event, such as a tropical storm, tornado, earthquake, etc., that poses a potential threat to humans and the things we value: our homes, vehicles, agriculture.
Disasters, by contrast, are single or interactive events that have a profound impact on local people or places, whether in terms of injuries, property damage, loss of life, or environmental impacts.
Not all hazards end in a catastrophe, but social factors such as exposure (environmental characteristics that cause a system to be affected by a hazard) and vulnerability (the potential for loss and damage from a hazard) often dictate the severity. of the impact of the hazard and the probability that the event will be classified as a catastrophe.
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Unfortunately, these factors have been increasing over time due to changes in the atmosphere and society.
Although many scientists focus on how climate change influences the risk (likelihood of an event) of tropical cyclones and hurricanes, others, like me, also examine "the other side of the catastrophe coin" : changes in exposure and vulnerability.
For nearly a decade, my collaborator Walker Ashley of Northern Illinois University and I have tried to explain the importance of the element of changing exposure when dealing with disasters.
This conceptual model is called the "expanding target effect."
It illustrates that as the "targets"—human beings and their possessions—of geophysical hazards expand and spread with growth in population and the built environment, the chances of a disaster must also increase.
Furthermore, it is not only the magnitude of the population that is important in creating a catastrophe potential, but how the population and the built environment are distributed in the landscape (for example, building along high-risk coastlines) which increases the risk and vulnerability to catastrophes.
This is very important because, while climate change may amplify the risk of certain hazards, the root cause of the increase in catastrophes is not necessarily related to the frequency of events or the risk;
is population growth and the replacement of natural areas by developed ones.
Hurricane Ian left unprecedented damage in the city of Fort Myers, Florida
So where does this leave us?
Tropical cyclone risk and exposure in Florida have changed and will continue to change rapidly due to changing climates and the built environment.
Looking ahead, we need to be more mindful not only of how we build our homes and communities, but also where we build them.
As human beings, we are neither innocent nor powerless in the fight against climate change and disasters.
In fact, we play a very important role in deciding where and how we build.
Ultimately, we decide which risks are worth taking.
Right now, we are choosing to sit at the table and bet, even though the deck is stacked against us.
Perhaps we have Carl Fisher (and so many who came after him) to thank?