Making ‘better decisions’: Lessons from Hurricane Ian for Florida

TALLAHASSEE — As the 2023 hurricane season begins, memories of Hurricane Ian, which caused billions of dollars in damage and pushed water across Southwest Florida’s barrier islands, are still fresh.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts a “near normal” hurricane season for 2023, which begins Thursday. In a positive sign, forecasters say the odds are improving that a potentially significant El Niño weather event will soon form, which typically means weaker hurricane formations in the Atlantic.

But pointing to lessons learned from last year’s Hurricane Ian and 2018’s devastating Hurricane Michael in northwestern Florida, emergency management officials believe they need to do more to communicate the risks of approaching storms.

Part of that involves the risks of storm surge and flooding. As of earlier this month, the National Flood Insurance Program had paid out nearly $4 billion to policyholders for damage from Hurricane Ian, and that’s not taking into account the damage suffered by numerous homeowners who didn’t They had flood insurance.

“It doesn’t take a lot of moving water to be life-threatening, especially for little ones like your children or your pets,” Mark Wool, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told The News Service of Florida.

“If you try to drive through three or four feet of moving water, you won’t get very far. It’s going to cut off your evacuation options, and it really does pose a threat to life. So when we put those storm surge watches and warnings in place, that means we feel there’s going to be enough inundation to pose a threat to life.”

Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said one change will involve educating people about the possible differences between storms that come directly from the ocean or the Gulf of Mexico and storms that encounter natural barriers. That could affect the storm surge.

“We have to tell people what nature is going to do, not just the storm … but what nature on earth is going to do to that storm before it hits their area,” Guthrie said. “That way, people can make better decisions, more informed decisions, and we can, you know, obviously help save more lives in the future.”

Guthrie said that as future watches and warnings are issued, potential storm tracks will help shape impacts.

He said many people in Southwest Florida went through Hurricane Irma in 2017, which was a Category 4 storm, and believed they could handle another major storm as Ian approached. But Irma was different from Ian, which made landfall on September 28 on the barrier islands of southwestern Florida before causing damage across the state.

Guthrie said one difference is that Irma found mangroves and vegetation in the Everglades.

“Those mangroves and the Everglades stuff caused the storm surge,” Guthrie said. “Whereas Hurricane Ian, it came directly from the Gulf. It had no mangroves. Non-natural base solutions in front of him. And then it came to the Fort Myers Beach area. And it was a solid 12 to 18 foot storm surge. So again, we need to do a better job of communicating not only what the storm surge watches and warnings are, but also what they mean based on the proximity of a storm.”

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, plans to carry out a series of upgrades this summer to expand the capacity of its supercomputing system, increasing the computing power of forecast models.

As an example, one of the upgrades will put what is known as the Hurricane Forecast and Analysis System into operation at the end of June. That is expected to improve forecast leads by 10 to 15 percent.

Last week, NOAA forecast that the six-month hurricane season would feature 12 to 17 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher. That total is forecast to include five to nine storms exceeding 74 mph that are designated hurricanes. One to four of the hurricanes are forecast to be Category 3 or higher, with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

The 2022 season featured 14 named storms, eight of which reached hurricane strength. Two systems were major hurricanes.

But Guthrie cautioned against the forecast numbers, referring to Ian hitting the Fort Myers area and Hurricane Andrew causing massive damage to Miami-Dade County in 1992.

“It doesn’t matter if we have 13 storms. All it takes, just like Fort Myers Beach, is just one. It only takes one,” Guthrie said. “Hurricane Andrew was in an easy season. It was supposed to be very, very inactive. Andrew was the first storm to come of the season in August. There was catastrophic damage in the state of Florida. So again, be prepared. It only takes one.

Repairs from Ian are still years from completion in parts of Southwest Florida, while storm hardening and cleanup continue five years after Michael.

This spring, lawmakers approved things like $75.2 million for bridge repairs in Lee County and $17.6 million for hurricane damage in the Lee County School District.