Florida population ‘explodes’ in region hardest hit by Hurricane Ian


Last week, Hurricane Ian slammed into one of the country’s fastest growing regions, endangering hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had never experienced a hurricane.

Florida has added nearly 3 million residents since 2010. And the Fort Myers area, which was ravaged by deadly storm surge Ian, was recently named the sixth fastest growing city in the world. country by the US Census Bureau. The population of the Fort Myers-Cape Coral metropolitan area was approximately 444,000 in 2000, according to Census Bureau data. By 2021, it had climbed to over 787,000.

Southwest Florida’s population has “exploded in part because it’s the cheapest part of the state to live in,” according to Jesse Keenan, professor of sustainable real estate at Florida’s School of Architecture. Tulane University, who told CNN that “there has been an enormous amount of growth over the past few decades.

Florida, which has a reputation for attracting retirees, has recently attracted new residents from parts of the country that historically haven’t had much experience with hurricanes. In 2019, Florida saw the most migration from Northeastern states, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to the Census Bureau, in addition to Midwestern states.

The influx comes as scientists warn that hurricanes are becoming increasingly destructive, with higher storm surges due to rising sea levels and a new propensity for large storms to intensify rapidly.

These trends, combined with the region’s growing population, housing, and infrastructure, have made the coast even more vulnerable to severe storms.

But little has been done to deter people from moving into the danger zone, experts told CNN.

Southwest Florida is appealing largely because it offers a good quality of life – it’s sunny, warm, and relatively inexpensive.

But something else is at play: In 2011, the Republican-controlled Florida state legislature relaxed decades-old state regulations intended to keep development in high-risk areas at a steady pace. reasonable or discourage developers from building on low-lying wetlands, Keenan said. .

Around the same time, former Governor Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers approved a state budget that eliminated the Department of Community Affairs, a state office regulating growth and development.

“It’s opened the door to rampant development in a way that puts people at a lot of risk, especially flood risk,” Keenan said.

The weakening of these regulations has been cheered by Florida’s business community and real estate industry, who have touted the move as a boost to economic growth. But that growth has started to happen in riskier areas that are more vulnerable to storms.

“Ultimately the state pulled out and the counties were left to fend for themselves without any adult supervision,” Keenan said. “You build where the land is cheap and you sell that housing at a comparatively lower price. It was a race, and storms like this really force everyone to take a break from the water and reevaluate their lives in so many ways.

Jeremy Porter, senior research fellow for the nonprofit First Street Foundation on climate risk, also noted that hard-hit Cape Coral was built on a floodplain.

“There’s a tremendous amount of risk,” Porter said.

Brianna Renas, 17, inspects a fallen palm tree outside her home in Cape Coral after riding through Hurricane Ian with her family.

But this risk isn’t necessarily obvious to newcomers, and there’s no central resource to help homeowners understand the threat.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps — which are used to determine insurance policy premiums — were not designed to serve as a general risk assessment tool for individuals. They also only consider risk based on previous flooding, rather than the growing threat as rainfall rates increase, sea levels rise and storms strengthen.

A recent report by the First Street Foundation found that in 2020, around 8.7 million properties were listed in FEMA’s special flood hazard zones – but up to 14.6 million properties are actually threatened by severe flooding.

And this risk increases even more in the future projections of the group. First Street’s analysis showed that by 2050, Cape Coral will be among the cities with the highest proportion of properties at significant flood risk.

“None of the current standards built into maps for the public, especially federal maps, take into account this climate change in the future,” Porter said.

While in southwest Florida the focus is on rebuilding, the question now is whether state and county authorities will discourage growth in these vulnerable areas. They could push residents to build more resilient homes — or give them “carte blanche” to rebuild on the status quo, said Larry Larson, director emeritus and senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers and a longtime expert. date of flood risk.

“The challenge now for Florida will be that you have a lot of destroyed buildings, houses and so on,” Larson told CNN. “What are you going to do when you let them rebuild?”

Boats rest on a canal property on Sanibel Island after Hurricane Ian.

There are several ways that some governments and the private sector can discourage people from buying homes in flood-prone areas. In some cases, federal or local governments can purchase frequently flooded properties and relocate the families living there.

Another way is to show the information to homebuyers in advance. First Street, for example, has teamed up with property giant Redfin to show potential buyers just how prone a property is to flooding. These estimates take into account the climate crisis.

Porter said Redfin and First Street have seen homebuyers walk away from the highest-risk homes in the market.

“We’re seeing that people are starting to interact with this data,” Porter said. “They explicitly look at flood risk scores.”

But it’s not foolproof. Porter noted that people aren’t necessarily saying no to flood-prone neighborhoods just yet. Instead, they’re looking for low-risk homes in the same area.

“It doesn’t mean people exit their housing market when they see this level of risk,” Porter said.