Barbara Liz-Ortiz did everything she could to reduce her young daughter’s fever, giving the child fluids and even a cold shower. The only thing he didn’t have was medicine, and he couldn’t leave the house to get it.
Like thousands of Floridians who weathered Hurricane Ian, Liz-Ortiz was trapped in her home, not by devastating winds or storm surge, but by catastrophic flooding.
“We can’t leave the house,” Liz-Ortiz said Thursday, as her family and many neighbors were stranded when water storage areas overflowed in her Buena Ventura Lakes subdivision in Kissimmee, Fla. .
Ian drenched some areas with up to 17 inches of rain as it moved across the state Wednesday and Thursday. Floodwaters spilled from scenic lakes, ponds and rivers and into homes, forcing emergency evacuations and rescues that continued into Friday.
Researchers who study floods, development and climate change were horrified by the emerging images, but not surprised. For years, they’ve warned that sprawling development in Florida and other coastal states is unsustainable, especially with a warming climate that overburdens hurricanes.
“This is what we expected days in advance, and it’s still heartbreaking to see so many people stranded,” said Kevin Reed, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Stony Brook University in New York.
He and other experts said they hope Ian’s devastation will lead to a push for Florida to do more to protect residents from future flooding as a warming climate makes natural disasters and rainfall more extreme.
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“None of this is surprising,” said Linda Shi, an assistant professor in Cornell University’s department of regional and urban planning. “How much do we need to want to make a change? Our policies and our elections have brought us to this point.”
Reed and colleagues recently published a study of all hurricanes during the 2020 season and concluded that climate change was adding 10 percent more rain to current hurricanes. On Thursday, they used the same models to compare Ian’s rainfall and concluded that it was at least 10% higher than it would have been without climate warming.
“This is one of the clearest indicators of how climate change is affecting storms,” Reed said. It may not seem like much, but two inches on top of an already large amount of rain has a huge impact. With just one acre, that’s 12.5 million more gallons of water.
Across the region, current measurements soared, in some cases to record highs.
Ian’s heavy rain also compounded the effects of a few feet of storm surge on Florida’s east coast. At New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County, the combination of rising tides and more than 15 inches of rain caused a creek to rise nine feet in 12 hours. More than half a dozen weather stations in the county reported double-digit rainfall, according to the National Weather Service.
The county sheriff’s office responded to 600 rescue calls, spokesman Andrew Gant said. A man died while waiting to be rescued from fast-rising waters at his home when he slipped and fell and the water rushed over him before he could get up.
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A similar combination of rain and storm surge continued to prompt water rescues Friday in Flagler County, Florida.
In Manatee County, Tracy Berry, her husband and three children were living in a trailer on their property near the town of Myakka, where they planned to build a house. On Thursday, they were huddled safely in an apartment on top of their barn after flooding from the Myakka River rushed into a creek behind their land and sent it several feet of water overnight Wednesday and in the morning. The river had been near flood stage before the hurricane, then rose 8 feet in less than 24 hours.
“Right now, we’re still in survival mode,” said Berry, a paramedic who also runs a nonprofit animal rescue. “We’re actually more prepared than some since I’m a first responder.”
A combination of strong winds and water destroyed her husband’s shop and other small buildings. The family would do the best they could with their array of rescue animals, split between the apartment and a horse trailer, she said, but their horses were wading with no way to get them to dry land.
“They lost everything,” he said. It is the second disaster for his family. Her home and belongings were destroyed in the 2013 Black Forest wildfire in Colorado.
What can Florida learn from Hurricane Ian?
While Berry lives in an idyllic setting in rural Manatee County, much of the flooding in Central Florida occurred in more developed communities like the one where Liz-Ortiz has lived for nine years. The researchers said this highlights the need for better planning.
Land use practices directly affect Florida’s ability to withstand water events, said John Dickson, president of national insurance company Aon Edge.
“We can’t stop cyclone events or stop the rain from falling, but we can build communities that are better able to withstand those events,” Dickson said. “We need to think about a more resilient structure and we need to make a plan to manage that. water and keep it away from our people, our families and our property.”
“Mother Nature keeps telling us that houses don’t belong where we built them, but we keep building houses where they don’t belong.”
The speed of the water rising in the street and around the backyard surprised Liz-Ortiz. A US Geological Survey gauge on a stream near his area showed a rise of 6 feet in less than 12 hours.
Liz-Ortiz said her husband’s car had flooded and they were afraid to take the risk of taking their other vehicle out of the garage and driving it through deep water to a pharmacy.
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Before the storm, they felt safe in their home, confident in their ability to withstand the expected winds, he said. They didn’t think the rain was a problem. A neighbor had seen water in the street during a previous hurricane, she said, but never this high.
Liz-Ortiz said state and local officials should require building practices that reduce the risk of flooding and help make homes more water-resistant.
Developers are building houses “wherever they can,” he said. “They need to think more about people’s safety, especially when there are so many hurricanes and tornadoes.”
Florida faces ‘painful choices’ over future development
Several experts said this week that Florida’s elevation makes it harder for rain to drain and easier for a storm surge to move inland, the basic gravity that should have been more of a factor as that the state was developed.
Whether a stormwater system is designed for rain that may occur once every 25 years or a rain that may occur once every 100 years, the system would likely be overwhelmed by rain like Ian’s, he said. said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. . The state may have to accept the fact that if they’re going to have water on the land, they’re going to have to build at a higher elevation, he said.
It will be “interesting” to see if Ian’s massive flooding prompts the kind of rule changes for floodplain development that the destruction of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 prompted building code improvements.
“There are no easy fixes” in a state like Florida that attracts development to boost its coffers through property taxes, Shi said. This pits cities against each other, so officials fear that if they require construction to a higher standard, the developer would move a project to the next city.
“There are a lot of places where people would want to make the right choices,” he said. “It’s going to be very painful choices about developing earlier or requiring developments to meet higher standards. You have to consider how long this can last. sustained.”
Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environmental issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or @dinahvp on Twitter.