Wednesday, September 27

Lessons from Hurricane Ian that Florida must heed | Editorial

Every time a major hurricane approaches landfall in Florida, one question dominates most people’s minds, no matter how much outward bravado they may show.

Is this the big one?

By that, they usually mean “Will this storm be the storm so massive, so costly, so deadly that it forces Florida to change the way it responds to global climate change and extreme weather? Will this finally force us to fix our eternally precarious insurance market?” Yet before the storm winds even really subside, the discussion takes a subtle shift, with the phrase “dodged a bullet” coming into heavy use.

The ravaged communities of Fort Myers, Venice and Cape Coral can’t say they dodged anything. As of Friday afternoon, 21 people were dead, most of them in these southwest Florida communities. Yet even as rescuers searched for survivors of Hurricane Ian, Floridians in other parts of the state were talking about how much worse it would have been if it had hit Tampa. Floodwaters were still rising in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, but Orlando residents seemed focused on the fact that the storm shifted south instead of ripping through downtown like a buzzsaw.

It’s an ongoing pattern of desensitization, one that fails to realize how many “big ones” have slammed into this state or scored near-misses. Floridians have taken in shocking images — ambulances waiting for bodies of senior citizens who died in the sweltering heat of a Hollywood nursing home after Hurricane Irma’s 2017 power failure; the street grids littered with smashed debris after Hurricane Michael flattened the Panhandle resort of Mexico Beach a year later. They watched the approach of Dorian, a massive Category 5 storm that in 2019 threatened to wipe Daytona Beach off the map only to stall out over the Bahamas. All of this, and much more, within the last five years alone.

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For southwest Florida, Ian is the big one. Recovery will be measured in years, not months. The storm will reshape the character of southwest Florida, including the charming and irreplaceable resort islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Gov. Ron DeSantis has performed ably so far, staying in constant contact with local officials, talking with President Joe Biden and appearing on TV regularly to communicate with Floridians. But if he is re-elected, the single largest challenge of his second term will be to steer that recovery — and put his muscle behind a more comprehensive defense against fiscal and meteorological devastation.

The alternative — waiting for some divine hand to write “This is the big one” across a storm-black sky before confronting reality — is unthinkable.

Florida’s private property insurance market is fundamentally broken and needs a comprehensive reboot. There is no pretense of a free market here; state regulations have companies so bound up, there’s almost no room for innovation. But the ties are made of gilded rope, designed to maximize profit potential while maintaining legal fictions (such as the law that allows companies to trade on national brand recognition but minimize their risk by walling Florida off into separate companies). Add to that the billions of dollars of backup catastrophic funding — taxpayer-backed “reinsurance” that lowers companies’ exposure to large-scale emergencies. Meanwhile, lawmakers tried to balance the scales with laws that were originally intended to force quick, consumer-friendly response to legitimate claims. As crafted by trial-attorney lobbyists, however, these measures created safe havens for myriad scams, which have now become so prevalent that several smaller insurance companies have collapsed.

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It’s a mess too tangled to repair. Florida lawmakers need to rebuild the system from the ground up.

At the same time, the governor must confront his own party’s persistent blindness toward the reality of climate science, which sharply limits Florida’s ability to manage the risk of impacts of future big storms. Researchers have already estimated that climate change added at least 10% to Ian’s rainfall totals; this gives the governor real-life examples of how much less devastation southwest Florida might have seen.

If anyone can do it, he can. DeSantis has never really been a climate-change denier and has, in fact, kept the challenges of resilience and related water-quality issues in an awkward side hug. He’s signed off on hundreds of millions in allocations, including projects to restore marshes and wetlands that should be buffering the state against the violence of big storms.

At the same time, however, his activist battle on all things “woke” includes a frontal attack on companies that embrace the ideals (and economic benefits) of clean, renewable energy.

He should drop that nonsense and become the climate warrior he’s always promised to be, rebuking those across the political spectrum who have learned to talk big on climate while stalling on action that might offend their allies in the fossil-fuel industries. Florida has big questions to answer, including whether it makes sense to keep crowding residents into the coastal areas that we already know are most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, and forcing state taxpayers to foot the bill for endless cycles of devastation and recovery.

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As cities like Fort Myers and Cape Coral begin the painful process of rebuilding, DeSantis should demand standards that respect reality. Around the world, weather is becoming increasingly violent and unpredictable, with bigger, more destructive storms and increased vulnerability to high heat and other perils. He should also force the acknowledgement that as sea levels rise, flooding will emerge as the No. 1 threat to lives and property in Florida. Any reconstruction along the coast must consider the inevitability that sooner or later, the invading sea will prevail.

It’s not just coastal areas: In every inland county Ian passed over, flooding threatened homes and washed out roads. Florida has to stop paving over the areas that allow water to seep back into the ground (where it eventually becomes the state’s critical drinking-water supply.) State leaders should also recognize the need to minimize the state’s contribution to global warming by reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

Even for those still awaiting the mythical monster of the “big one,” there’s no longer any excuse to avoid the reality playing out in Southwest Florida: Over the course of 24 hours, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Floridians were dramatically remade by Hurricane Ian, and recovery will take generations. This will keep happening, and it’s time to acknowledge that reality.

If DeSantis wants a culture war, this is the righteous choice.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at [email protected].

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