Opinion: Florida’s hurricane problem could have been avoided

Editor’s note: Stephen Strader is an Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment at Villanova University. It examines how vulnerable human environments are to natural disasters. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


After battling Hurricane Ian’s high winds, torrential rains and storm surges approaching 12 feet in some places, residents are left to pick up the pieces. In the hours and days after Ian, the true destruction will be revealed, shedding light on the affected areas.

Residents who didn’t evacuate are dealing with life-threatening conditions while emergency responders deal with the overwhelming volume of calls from those needing help. Unfortunately, this scene is all too common in the state of Florida.

30 years ago, Miami-Dade County, Florida was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, causing more than $50 trillion in damages (adjusted for inflation), destroying more than 60,000 homes and leaving 170,000 homeless.

In the wake of Andrew, the federal government implemented a plan to improve Florida’s housing construction quality by giving the state some of the strongest building codes in the nation.

While Florida’s improved building standards may have prevented damage and improved survivability for those in the path of subsequent storms, other catastrophic factors, such as rapid and uncontrolled population growth and a changing climate, have tipped the scale of the disaster in the wrong direction.

If we go back to the early 1910s, a man named Carl Fisher (known as the automobile magnate responsible for building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) decided to vacation in what is now known as Miami Beach.

He quickly realized the money-making opportunity at hand, buying, clearing and filling in thousands of acres of swamps and mangroves to make way for new waterfront properties where investors would soon line up to build homes and hotels for those seeking a piece of paradise. .

To build the range, Fisher effectively replaced the natural sponge-like wetlands and mangroves that protect inland areas from stormwater with hard, impermeable surfaces that would bear the brunt of hurricanes like Andrew and now Ian.

Unfortunately, this pattern of rapid development along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has not been successful in the 21st century. It has continued into the 20th century, setting the stage for disaster. For example, Florida’s population has grown nearly 60 percent since Hurricane Andrew, which is twice as fast as the national average over the same period, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. With a growing population comes a growing number of homes. In fact, the number of homes in Florida has nearly doubled from 5.7 million in 1990 to 10 million in 2020, based on government data.

But why does this matter in disaster events like Hurricane Ian?

In fact, when more people are exposed to a natural hazard, such as a hurricane, the likelihood of a major disaster is greater. As our population and built environment grow and expand, we are becoming more vulnerable to damage. Wetlands and mangroves that once acted as a natural “stopper” to the rising waters and waves brought by hurricanes are shrinking or disappearing. The infrastructures have been replaced.

You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between a natural hazard and a disaster? So before we go any further, let’s define them.

Generally, 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”, in contrast, are rare or interactive hazard events that have a significant impact on local people or places, either through injury, property damage, loss of life or environmental impacts.

Not all hazards lead to disaster, but societal factors such as exposure (the environmental characteristics that position a system to be exposed to a hazard) and vulnerability (the potential for loss and damage from a hazard) often determine the severity of the hazard’s impact and whether the event is classified as a disaster. .

Unfortunately, these factors have increased over time, both due to changes in the environment and society.

While many scientists are studying how climate change affects the risk (the probability of an event) of tropical storms and hurricanes, others, like me, are also studying the “other side of the disaster coin”: exposure and vulnerability. the changes

For the better part of a decade, my collaborator Walker Ashley at Northern Illinois University and I have sought to explain the importance of the changing element of exposure when it comes to disaster. This conceptual model is called the “spreading bull effect.” It indicates that as the “targets” of geophysical hazards – humans and their property – grow and expand with the growth of population and the built environment, the probability of disaster must also increase.

Furthermore, it is not just the magnitude of the population that is important in generating disaster potential, but how the population and the built environment are distributed across the landscape (eg, building along high-risk coastlines) increases disaster risk and vulnerability. This is very important because, although climate change may increase the risk of certain hazards, the basis of the increase in disasters is not necessarily related to the frequency or risk of events; it is population growth and the replacement of natural areas with developed areas.

So where does this leave us?

Florida’s tropical storm risk and exposure is changing rapidly and will continue to change due to both climate and the changing landscape of the built environment. Going forward, we must consider not only how we build our homes and communities, but also where we build them.

As humans, we are not innocent or powerless in the fight against climate change and disasters. In fact, we play a very critical role by deciding where and how we will build. Ultimately, we decide what risks are worth taking. Right now, we are choosing to sit down at the table and bet, even if the deck is stacked against us. Perhaps we have Carl Fisher (and so many who came after him) to thank for that?