Coastal areas of Florida hit hard by Hurricane Ian’s monstrous storm surge and Category 4 winds should take a hard look at future developments, building codes and whether and how to rebuild barriers islands.
That is according to hurricane experts reacting to the widespread damage the storm brought to Southwest Florida including its coastal areas and popular islands
Barrier islands throughout Florida create natural barriers and buffer zones to hurricanes and tropical storms. They have also become wealthy enclaves for beachfront homes, resorts and popular beaches.
“Everyone wants to live near the beach,” said Erik Salna, associate director for education and outreach at Florida International University’s International Hurricane Research Center and Extreme Events Institute.
Barrier isles, such as Sanibel Island and Pine Island, Gasparilla Island, and coast areas such as Fort Myers Beach, sustained cataclysmic damage to homes, bridges and utility infrastructure from Ian.
Local leaders, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Southwestern Florida businesses and homeowners have vowed to rebuild after the storm’s rampage.
Salna said barrier islands that see developments destroyed by storms need to look at what kind of future construction should take place.
He said that includes looking at whether to turn storm-impacted islands and beaches into parks and natural buffers preserves. But Salna and others are realistic that many of those same barrier islands have been built up and offer high-end real estate.
All the wealthy homes, resorts and businesses on barrier islands and coast lines generate tax revenue and create jobs and economic activity.
Still, hurricanes are becoming more intense and more destructive with warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Ian should be a warning of the potential impacts of future storms, said Richard Rood, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan.
“People need to rethink their relationships with the coasts,” Rood said.
Before Ian, the insurance situation was already problematic in Florida with carriers going out of business or raising rates so high that homeowners are forced to the state-run insurer of last resort: Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
“That’s not gong to be sustainable down there,” Rood said.
Ian will only add to those challenges with damages that could total as much as $70 billion, according to an analysis by research firm CoreLogic.
“The key reason Hurricane Ian is so economically destructive is due to the massive growth in coastal real estate in Florida,” said Tom Larsen, senior director of hazard and risk management, CoreLogic. “Florida’s population has grown 50% since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit Miami, with disproportionately more growth in South Florida. The extra costs incurred from the surge in repair needs simultaneous with a fragile economy are headwinds to rapid reconstruction and we should expect to see resident displacement and housing affordability issues in the state for some time to come.”
While it is unlikely pro-growth areas of the state will impose new development restrictions along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, there will be fresh looks at building codes and with each storm older buildings will be replaced with stronger and more expensive structures.
Salna said new homes and buildings fared better than older structures impacted by the storm’s flooding and winds.
He said local rebuilding efforts will see new development landscapes for the most impacted areas. That includes examination of building materials, storm safeguard for roofs and how high above the ground structure should be.
“The new Fort Myers Beach will look different. The new Fort Myers Beach will be more resilient,” he said.
Other hurricane experts say the development of coasts and barrier islands simply adds to Florida’s exposure to strengthening storms.
“Nobody should be living on a barrier island,” said Dan Kottlowski, lead hurricane forecaster and senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. “People live in very bad places,” he said of the exposure to dangerous weather and storms along Florida and other U.S. coasts.
But Kottlowski is realistic about Florida’s penchant for growth. He hopes there are building code changes along coastal areas including enhanced insurance requirements and requiring more buildings to be elevated or on stilts.
“They need to change the code,” he said.
Those code changes should center on the large storm surges and rainfalls generate by hurricanes and other storms, according to John Renne, a professor and director of the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University.
“I think what really need to look at is a uniform development code across the state,” said Renne.
Renne said some Florida building code changes were implemented after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He said those and other building code changes have focused on making sure buildings can withstand gale and hurricane-force winds.
Now, Renne wants a new focus on storm surges and Florida facing a future with potentially more Category 4 and Category 5 storms.
“They are falling to account for storm surge,” said Renne who said building codes changes should look at how much buildings need be raised to avoid floodwaters. “I think that is going to change.”
The FAU hurricane expert also wants to see re-examination of zoning and to look at what changes might be need to account for more severe storms.
Renne said that should create more places, such as retention areas and trying to channel high water volumes away from homes and businesses.
“I think we really need to review our zoning codes to address more storm surge,” he said.
Renne expects continued real estate and market interest along Florida’s coasts but that could be damped if more intense storms continue to hit beach areas more frequently.