Florida’s densely populated, low-lying Gulf Coast offers a warning for other communities where development has expanded into territory vulnerable to climate-linked disasters like Hurricane Ian.
The Category 3 hurricane, projected to make landfall as early as Wednesday, is aiming toward a stretch of coast south of Tampa Bay where condo buildings and single-family homes crowd barrier islands and inland communities vulnerable to flooding. Along with Ian’s dangerous winds and the risk of flash floods, a special worry is the coast’s susceptibility to storm surge — a phenomenon that scientists say climate change has worsened.
“It’s No. 1 on everybody’s list,” said Albert Slap, president of Boca Raton, Fla.-based firm Coastal Risk Consulting. “The backbone of our economy is where people live and work. What Mother Nature is putting out to us is different — we’re not living in our parents’ climate anymore.”
The National Hurricane Center warned Tuesday that Ian could bring as much as 12 feet of storm surge to a wide stretch of shoreline south of Tampa Bay, including Sarasota and Charlotte counties — as well as 4 to 6 feet along the bay itself, where cities such as Tampa and St. Petersburg would be especially vulnerable to catastrophic flooding if a storm struck them directly.
The hurricane center’s 5 p.m. forecast moved Ian’s potential landfall further south than earlier expected. Still, the meteorologists cautioned that the track remains uncertain and the storm will wreak damage far from its eye. “[A]voiding a large and destructive hurricane for Florida seems very unlikely,” they wrote.
Tampa Bay in particular embodies a trend that has alarmed climate scientists, disaster experts and emergency planners: People, infrastructure and investment have flocked to coasts that are susceptible to the powerful storms, just as they have to wildfire-prone rural areas of the West.
The number of climate-fueled disasters in the U.S. with $1 billion or more in damages is surging, federal agencies have noted, a trend that’s largely a factor of more money and investment being poured into the places that are vulnerable to climate risks. Providing safety for people in those communities is vexing for the federal government, which spends billions on disaster recovery annually — and for local governments that stand to gain revenue from development in risky locations.
Emergency planners have long identified the Tampa Bay region as a place where even a weak hurricane could wreak billions of dollars in damage because of the huge number of homes and other buildings placed on vulnerable ground. Some experts fear that Ian could make those worries real.
“It is possible that this could break the bank,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, said of the hurricane. “The question is, ‘What does breaking the bank look like?’”
Hillsborough County, where Tampa sits, has a more than decade-old post-disaster redevelopment plan that calls for steering building away from places that climate change is making unsuitable for living. Those plans contrast with the current reality: Development continues apace and more people have relocated to Tampa, which, like other Florida communities, became boomtowns as Americans sought sunnier, care-free living during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even if Ian’s eye avoids a direct strike on Tampa Bay, forecasters say it could create unprecedented storm surge, flooding and damage.
Tampa Bay, Florida’s second-largest metropolitan area, hasn’t experienced a direct hit from a major hurricane in more than a century. That luck has always figured to run out. Development patterns acted otherwise — nearly a quarter of Tampa’s residents live in the floodplain, according to researchers at the University of South Florida. By 2035, more than 41 percent will live there.
Tampa-area developers are assessing plans to build affordable housing right in the middle of the 100-year floodplain, which means an area has a 1-percent annual chance of flooding — though climate change is scrambling that probability, said R.J. Lehmann, the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based editor-in-chief of the International Center for Law and Economics, where he focuses on insurance.
Many private property insurers fled Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, seeing only downsides to operating in such a disaster- and flood-prone state rife with claims litigation. The market is still in tatters three decades later, with six private property insurers going under this year alone. That has pushed more property owners into the state-created Citizens Property Insurance Corp., whose number of homeowners’, commercial and wind-storm policies has doubled to more than 1 million in just two years despite charging rates that many residents consider unaffordable.
Faced with calls to fix the state’s system, and lessen the risk to taxpayers by keeping insurers in the state, the legislature passed a bill last spring that Democrats condemned as a “giveaway” to insurance companies and Republicans acknowledged was an imperfect solution. More private insurers have failed since then.
“Rather than address insurance, the priority of the legislature was to engage in all sorts of culture war issues — because apparently being mean to trans kids was more important,” Lehmann said.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected criticism this week of the state’s insurance efforts, including the new legislation. “We put $2 billion into a fund to provide a backstop and kept a lot of them from going out of business, and this is a problem we are going to continue to tackle,” he said during a Monday news conference.
Citizens spokesperson Michael Peltier said in an email that the insurer is “self-sustaining financially” and “in strong financial position.” But “if we do exhaust our ability to pay claims,” he said, Citizens is “required to levy assessments” first on policyholders and then other Florida insurance customers, such as for auto and homeowner insurance.
A disaster, however, could spiral across Florida’s economy, said Baughman, who had oversight over Citizens when she worked under former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink — a Democrat — in the early 2000s. Then, she said, the state would pick up the tab for disaster damages. Other insurers could flee. With no personal income tax, Florida would have to rely on income such as sales tax revenue to pay for recovery. Disasters would depress those dollars.
Meanwhile, any flood damage from Ian would further burden the nation’s flood insurance program, which is already struggling under massive debt it cannot repay.
Some climate scientists are seeing signals that the effects of climate change could worsen Ian’s destructive potential.
Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in an email that the effect of climate change on Ian means it “will certainly rain more,” possibly boosting rainfall by 10 to 15 percent compared with a world without human-driven climate change. Water temperatures are also warmer than average, which could fuel a stronger storm. Climate change has also raised sea levels by a foot in the last century, escalating storm surge, said Gary Mitchum, associate dean at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.
“The warmer water means that you can have more evaporation and the evaporation is what fuels the hurricane,” Mitchum said. “Warmer water should make a stronger hurricane.”
Florida isn’t the only state where natural disasters linked to a warming climate have begun to expose “cracks in the system,” said Alice Hill, who worked on climate resilience in former President Barack Obama’s White House. She pointed to California, which insurers are threatening to leave to avoid covering wildfire damages.
California’s insurance regulator forced the companies to provide coverage for another year, but insurance policies are already getting expensive. Rising insurance costs could lead to more homeowners going “bare” — dropping coverage altogether — which would expose them and the state to enormous losses in another disaster, Hill said.
It’s a cycle that’s bound to repeat as climate change flares up in all pockets of the country.
“Humans may be calculating their risk based on what they’ve seen in the past, not understanding that, by definition, climate change brings even bigger events,” said Hill, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We’ve seen people moving into the areas in the last 10 years that are at greater risk from hurricanes. They like to live near the coast. So it’s an interesting phenomenon. We could do better on many fronts.”