KISSIMMEE, Fla.—Jason Diaz awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of trickling water.
Outside his first-floor apartment where he had slept, Hurricane Ian moved violently and slowly over the Florida interior, dropping monumental amounts of rain on the low-slung landscape pockmarked everywhere with lakes and rivers, ponds and canals. The headwaters of the Everglades begin here. To the east the St. Johns River, the state’s longest river, flows north. Ian’s lumbering pace meant these waterways filled quickly.
By the time Diaz landed his feet on the floor and stood up, the water inside his apartment was ankle-deep. The next few hours would be a blur of evacuating family members and neighbors, and swimming through five feet of water. Three hours later he went back for one neighbor who had just undergone surgery and couldn’t wade through the flood water with an open wound.
“Fortunately he was on top of his table, so he wasn’t standing in the water,” said Diaz, 54. “But it was getting much higher. It’s a good thing they had an airboat come rescue him.”
Days later Diaz sat dazed beneath a shady tree outside the Kissimmee Civic Center, which had been turned into a shelter for the displaced like him. Virtually everything he owned was swamped back in his apartment. A 20-year Floridian, he had been through hurricanes before but nothing like Ian. He had no idea what he was going to do next.
“I might get emotional. I had a collection of collectables for my grandkids that I had been collecting for 30 years,” he said, eyeing pictures of the toys and comics on his phone. “That’s all gone. I don’t have a lot of money, and that was sort of my way of giving my grandkids something that they can either use or sell in the future.”
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In the less than two weeks since Ian made landfall on Sept. 28 as a near-Category 5 storm, officials in Florida have been focused on searches and rescues, restoring power and collecting the dead, a grim tally that tops 100, according to the Associated Press. But the conversation in Florida has started to turn toward policy, including Gov. Ron DeSantis’ approach to climate change in a state that is among those most vulnerable to impacts from global warming.
DeSantis’ focus has been on trying to adapt Florida to climate change, what he calls “resilience,” and under his leadership, the state is starting to spend at least $1 billion to gird against impacts from future extreme weather through a new Resilient Florida program established by legislation he signed in May of 2021. The legislation recognized Florida as “particularly vulnerable” to flooding from increasing rainfall, storm surge and severe weather.
It is not the only resilience spending in the state, but his administration calls it the largest investment in Florida’s history to prepare communities for the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, intensified storms and flooding. DeSantis has largely ignored the other piece of the climate policy equation—reducing the main driver of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions.
But Hurricane Ian has shown just what Florida is up against in a world where global warming is, as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe described recently, “putting hurricanes on steroids.” Ian blew ashore with winds of 150 miles per hour, and pushed storm surges of 12 to 18 feet before moving across central Florida, where it caused extensive inland flooding.
Ian splintered and washed away homes, broke bridges, toppled trees, tossed boats, submerged roads and fell power lines in communities like Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, Naples and the Orlando area. It caused $45 billion to $55 billion in property damage, according to a preliminary estimate from Moody’s Analytics. There are now fears that Ian will make the state’s insurance industry, already pushed to the brink by previous hurricanes, tip further toward collapse.
A core problem, experts said, is that too many people are living in high-risk areas in a state with the highest risk from hurricanes.
Florida’s new spending on resilience is important, said Richard S. Olson, professor and director of the Extreme Events Institute and the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University. “I am not going to say it’s a Band-Aid; it is helping, of course,” said Olson, who researches the political fallout from disasters. “But is it enough when you consider we have had 70-plus years of coastal and barrier island development?”
In the 1950s, Florida’s population was less than 3 million. Now, there are 22 million Floridians. “A lot of those people wanted to live near the water,” Olson said. “Florida is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by warm water, in a hurricane zone. What could possibly go wrong? You have to question the development model.”
A Climate Plan Gets ‘Trash-Canned’
DeSantis was elected governor in 2018, is up for reelection in November and is considered a potential front-runner for the GOP nomination in the 2024 presidential race. First, though, he is facing former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat and former Republican who recently stepped down from the U.S. House of Representatives. Crist served as governor from 2007 to 2011 and had been a leader in the Republican Party on climate, putting forward a 2008 climate action plan intended to “reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and provide a framework for climate change adaptation strategies to guide Florida over the coming years and decades.”
Crist was followed by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. Scott, who now represents Florida in the U.S. Senate, was seen by many as indifferent or hostile to concerns about the climate. At the time of DeSantis’ election, environmental advocates were relieved he was not a full-on climate change denier, after eight years of Scott.
Some environmental advocates agree that the Resilient Florida program is a necessary, if not long overdue, effort to get Florida communities to assess their vulnerabilities and secure funding for projects to reduce those risks.
Project funding approved so far include raising or hardening sea walls, elevating roads, improving drainage, renovating wastewater pump stations, acquiring and protecting wetlands, and replacing septic tanks with sewers.
“He has put a lot of money towards resilience, predominantly federal money, and very little state money, but money nonetheless,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, which tracks state government, of DeSantis. The resilience spending is “all good,” she added.
But the program is too new to make much of a difference with Ian, she said. She wonders how much better prepared Florida might have been to address climate change impacts including hurricanes had Crist’s 2008 plan not been “trash-canned.”
DeSantis’ rollout has also been a bit bumpy, she added. The DeSantis administration should have by now already developed a statewide plan for spending the money based on a statewide vulnerability study.
“There’s a list of projects that are supposed to get money, like wastewater infrastructure projects, road-lifting projects and that sort of thing,” Moncrief said. “These are all being done without the benefit of that larger vulnerability assessment to really identify target areas.”
Florida Conservation Voters’ budget tracker shows state lawmakers’ resilience budgets jumping from $23 million in 2020 to $530 million in 2021—a 2,204 percent increase—with $500 million coming from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The legislature allocated another $493 million to resilience this year, with $200 million coming from the federal government, according to Florida Conservation Voters.
Resiliency spending aside, Moncrief said it’s “irresponsible” for the state to be “spending all this money without any real policy changes” to address “the root cause of the climate crisis.”
DeSantis’ chief resilience officer, Wesley Brooks, referred a request for an interview to DeSantis’ press office, which declined to make Brooks available right away.
Friday, during a stop in Daytona Beach, DeSantis said he’s noticed that newer infrastructure fared better against Hurricane Ian.
“The core infrastructure did very very well, by and large,” he said. “And I would say the same thing with some of the roads, some of the bridges. The stuff that was new, you do see the impact of that. And so I think we were right to do things like we have, with the resilient coastline.”
In another recent media interview, when DeSantis was asked about climate change, he touted the $1 billion Resilient Florida program. Local communities are able to get money that is matched by money from the Resilient Florida program “to be able to make improvements and harden their infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a two year old program so they haven’t completed it but that is a lot of money to put in the system.”
DeSantis has also faced criticism for taking credit for spending federal economic stimulus money while at the same time criticizing President Joe Biden, a Democrat, for reckless spending, and on at least one occasion calling himself “DeSantis Claus,” the Orlando Sentinel has reported.
Since Hurricane Ian, the governor has also said his administration is committed to rebuilding hard-hit communities like Sanibel Island in southwest Florida, which was left virtually unrecognizable after the hurricane.
“You want to get back to some semblance of normalcy as quickly as possible,” DeSantis said during a news briefing the day after Ian. “It’s going to be harder in some areas than others but I want to. Let’s work on Sanibel. And let’s bring it back to where it was as soon as we can.”
Going Beyond Resilience Investments
Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida in 1992 as a Category 5, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with wind speeds of 165 miles per hour, destroying more than 25,000 homes and damaging 101,000 others, while killing 26 people.
The state responded by upgrading its building codes, requiring stronger resistance to wind.
Those wind codes have worked, but Hurricane Ian, with its powerful storm surge and widespread torrential rains, shows that a lot more needs to be done to address water from hurricanes, said Lee Constantine, a Republican member of the Seminole County Commission. He’s a former state senator who worked on water and energy issues as well as hurricane building codes while a state lawmaker.
The Resilient Florida program is a good beginning but was never meant to meet all of Florida’s climate adaptation needs, said Constantine, whose Seminole County was flooded during Ian.
“We could do a better job in planning when it comes to flooding,” he said. Hurricanes are going to flood rivers, lakes and streams “but we don’t have to build homes right in the middle of our floodplains,” Constantine said. Climate change, he said, with oceans rising and making hurricanes more dangerous, only makes it more urgent to include land-use reform in resiliency planning, he added.
In adapting to the future, Florida will also have to address the development mistakes of the past, he said.
“We are going to have to pay for the consequences of significant damage from not caring about future consequences,” he added.
For too long, too many people in Florida did not recognize the reality of climate change or take it seriously, said Dawn Shirreffs, the Florida director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a national group working on Florida climate issues.
“We lost a solid decade of preparation that we really needed to help deal with the changing realities of more intense storms,” she said. But that’s changing.
Hurricanes are changing, too, scientists say, intensifying faster and dropping more rain.
They are natural phenomena but human-caused climate change is making them more dangerous and increasing the devastation they cause, Hayhoe, the chief scientist with the Nature Conservancy and a professor at Texas Tech, wrote in a LinkedIn post in the immediate aftermath of Ian.
Ian went through rapid intensification, and the first preliminary attribution study on Ian found that human-induced climate change increased Ian’s extreme rainfall rates by more than 10 percent, according to researchers at Stony Brook University and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
“While we are now in a space where we are aggressively as a state looking forward and developing a comprehensive statewide (adaptation) strategy, we are still in the early days,” Shirreffs cautioned. “We’re still in the process of developing what that statewide strategy is going to look like.
“We are way behind and we are going to have to move faster and more strategically as a result,” she said.
Smarter Decisions About Development
Ian has come and gone, though recovery will take years.
As communities anticipate future hurricanes and other extreme weather fueled at least in part by climate change, the 2021 legislation that created Resilient Florida is now requiring communities to document their vulnerabilities and compete for grants for resilience spending. That legislation “was absolutely transformational in the state of Florida,” said Erin Deady, an environmental lawyer and planning consultant who works with communities to secure resilience funding.
Communities seeking state funding to make infrastructure improvements must now take climate change into account, such as factoring in sea level rise and changes in precipitation patterns for everything from road work to water management.
If a project is to be built inland, then “it needs to be resilient to a higher-volume, more-frequent, bad-rain event. If you’re on the coast, then it’s got to be resilient to the compounded effects of sea level rise and rainfall,” she said. “This program is forcing that conversation.”
But destroyed communities like the one on Sanibel Island and extreme devastation elsewhere shows that Florida has a long way to go to better withstand a blow from a major hurricane, she said. Ian provides an opportunity to make smarter decisions about where development should or shouldn’t occur, or how it should occur, she added.
“I’m hopeful that (Ian) will promote a larger policy discussion with local governments about how they allow and if they allow people to rebuild, especially on those barrier islands,” Deady said. “We’ve got barrier islands all over the state of Florida.”
The ‘Moral Hazard’ of Not Changing Course
In central Florida, officials have described the widespread flooding as historic. In some spots, the high waters were not expected to crest for a week or more after Hurricane Ian, prompting continued flooding and evacuations.
In Altamonte Springs, north of Orlando, in one neighborhood along the Little Wekiva River some 40 homes either were inundated or inaccessible because of flooded roadways two days after the hurricane.
The neighborhood is in a floodplain and had experienced high waters in the past, most notably after Hurricane Irma in 2017, but residents said those were nothing like this. Many had evacuated, and some were getting around in kayaks.
Altamonte Springs Commissioner Jim Turney, who lives nearby but was not flooded, was hopeful officials would help flood victims. But he said he was also concerned about a potential “moral hazard” of enabling people to live in a known floodplain in the first place.
“So you end up encouraging people to take risky behavior and put themselves in harm’s way at the expense of other people who made decisions to stay away and considered that when they purchased their home,” he said. “How do you reach that balance?”