Tropical cyclones as powerful as Hurricane Ian threaten to cause lasting damage to families, crops, coastlines and industries long after they make landfall.
The initial onslaught of wind and water, as well as persistent flooding, pose significant risks to the lives of those who did not evacuate. And Category 4 threats like Ian can knock out power grids, flatten homes and leave many roads impassable, isolating people when they need help most. Economic ripples radiate far beyond the storm’s path.
In Ian’s case, many of these effects will be magnified because he hit the heart of Florida, the third most populous state in America. The storm packed winds of 150 miles (241 kilometers) per hour when it made landfall after 3 p.m. local time Wednesday near Cayo Costa, tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane to hit the North American continent . As the United States and the state begin to shift to storm response and then recovery, here are some of the threats to monitor.
wall of water
Hurricanes push the water in front of them as they move over the ocean. This is known as a “storm surge”, which can cause significant coastal destruction. The low-lying geography and shallow continental shelf in parts of West Florida make it particularly vulnerable. Ian’s projected storm surge of 4 meters to 18 feet could send seawater far inland.
The surge and winds that Ian brings ashore will deal a devastating blow to coastal cities and towns. But the heavy rains sweeping across Florida and into Georgia, South Carolina and beyond will spread misery and damage. Case in point: Walt Disney World in the Orlando area of central Florida issued a shelter-in-place order for hotel guests despite being about 140 miles from where the storm made landfall.
More than 2 feet of rain could fall in central Florida. The National Weather Service is warning that there could be record flooding on rivers across the state. Over the next seven days, flooding rain could fall from Florida to southern New Jersey and across the Appalachian Mountains, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.
The state of the sun could go dark for days
Category 4 storms cause such damage to power grids, including downed poles, that the National Hurricane Center says outages can last weeks or even months. Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric company, told customers to brace for “widespread outages” from Ian and warned they could be out for days. The public company NextEra Energy Inc. spent billions of dollars to strengthen its system after a rash of hurricanes hit the state more than a decade ago, but now faces the prospect of having to rebuild parts of it. More than 30,000 utility workers in 26 states mobilized to help restore power after the storm passed, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group. But doing so will require access to equipment and communities that may be cut off by flooding or downed trees.
Many fuel terminals in Florida are closed, while high winds and flooding make truck deliveries impossible in many areas. Fuel distributors in the state are warning of long wait times to resupply businesses and homes with diesel for generators. Prolonged disruption to water transport could jeopardize the state’s fuel supply, 90% of which arrives by barge at 4 ports.
President Joe Biden warned oil companies not to raise gas prices after Ian: “No, let me repeat, do not, do not use this as an excuse to raise gas prices in United States”.
Breakfast more and more expensive
The future of orange juice skyrocketed as Ian approached the Florida coast. And if crop damage in Florida’s famed crop is as extensive as feared, potentially 90 percent of its citrus belt, Maxar says, will further worsen food inflation affecting consumers.
For growers, the damage could force life-changing decisions. Florida growers are already struggling with a devastating disease called citrus greening that damages fruit and eventually kills trees. A devastating hit by Ian could be the last straw for some growers, said Raymond Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in Sebring, Florida.
Then there is the impact on fertilizers. Fertilizer maker Mosaic Co. evacuated some of its operations in Florida as Hurricane Ian made landfall, another food inflation threat.
Risk of chemical spills and dead fish
Florida produces much of the US’s phosphate fertilizer, in a process that produces a radioactive and toxic byproduct called phosphogypsum, which is stored in piles or large mounds. Last year, one of them suffered a catastrophic failure due to heavy rains, causing a red tide that killed about 1,800 pounds (816 kilograms) of marine life and forced evacuations in nearby towns. Environmental experts fear a possible repeat with Ian, whose path may approach where Mosaic has most of its phosphate facilities. A company spokesman said it has made improvements to its facilities to help prevent these problems, including “a more comprehensive internal dike system.”
Good luck getting insurance
Florida’s insurance market was already chaotic before Ian. But the storm comes on the heels of six insolvencies among insurers that write homeowners policies in the state. Larger insurers had pulled out of the market after previous natural disasters, while smaller firms still active there have struggled to absorb losses.
Flood damage is generally not covered in home policies. Instead, they are included in policies managed by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“If it’s a major flood, that could leave a lot of homeowners vulnerable,” said Mark Friedlander, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute. “If there were significant windstorm losses, other companies could also be pushed in the direction of potential insolvency.”
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