How did Ian become Florida’s deadliest hurricane in nearly 90 years?

Hurricane Ian makes landfall near Cayo Costa, FL on Sept. 28, 2022. Ian was a Category 4 hurricane at landfall with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.(tropicaltidbits.com)
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 2:54 PM CDT

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - One week after Hurricane Ian delivered a devastating blow to parts of the Florida Peninsula, it is still unclear how many people perished in the powerful storm that was packing 150-mile-per-hour winds at landfall.

But multiple reports, including one from CBS News, placed the death toll at more than 100 people as of Tuesday, Oct. 5. That makes Ian the deadliest in Florida since the ‘Labor Day Hurricane’ struck the state as a Category 5 storm in 1935.

In an age of ever-improving hurricane forecasts that has seen a general trend toward fewer storm-related fatalities, what went wrong? It’s complicated. But here are a few thoughts from an outside, looking in, perspective.

Ian’s storm surge impacted a densely populated region

Seven major hurricanes (Category 3-5) have now made landfall in the continental United States in a little more than five years. One point that I think has been lost on many relative to those other storms is that the brunt of Ian’s storm surge was directed into a densely populated region. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metropolitan area is home to just under 800,000 people.

Major hurricanes (Category 3-5) making landfall in the continental U.S. since 2017. All 7 have made landfall along the Gulf Coast, with 6 of the 7 near peak intensity at landfall. (WAFB)

Storms like Harvey delivered historic freshwater flooding to places like Houston and Beaumont, but the often more deadly storm surge flooding was averted in those areas with a landfall well to the south. Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and not the much more densely populated Miami metropolitan area, home to millions. Ida produced significant surge in southeast Louisiana, but it didn’t take a track that maximizes surge in the New Orleans area, allowing levees to contain the water.

Perhaps we had developed a false sense of security in recent years related to storm surge fatalities due to those storm tracks?

People overestimate their hurricane experience levels

Numerous studies have shown that coastal residents overestimate their hurricane experience levels. One such study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) found that,

“…they misconstrued the greatest threat as coming from wind rather than water. These misperceptions translated into preparation actions that were not well commensurate with the nature and scale of the threat that they faced, with residents being well prepared for a modest wind event of short duration but not for a significant wind-and-water catastrophe.”

Additionally, the west coast of the Florida Peninsula actually sees less frequent hurricane activity than most of the remainder of the U.S. Gulf Coast. The hardest hit areas from Ian only average a major hurricane passing within 50 miles about once every 30 years. Florida is also among the top destinations for retirees and ‘snowbirds’, many of whom come from areas that don’t experience hurricanes. Irma passed just east of the hardest hit areas in 2017 and was weakening, while Charley is discussed in more detail below.

Major hurricane tracks since 2017 overlaid on population density data. Areas shaded in red have greater population density.(WAFB)

The Charley factor

Along the lines of the experience factor, I can’t help but wonder how many people underestimated Ian’s impacts based on what they experienced when another Category 4 hurricane, Charley, made landfall in a very similar location in 2004. I know both local meteorologists in Florida and those with a national platform were cautioning against the comparison but setting expectations for an approaching storm based on past experiences is human nature.

In this case, even though the tracks were quite similar, Ian was a much larger storm and moving more slowly. Charley’s storm surge peaked in the 6-7 foot range as the compact storm raced to the northeast at around 25 miles per hour. Ian, on the other hand, produced a peak storm surge at least twice as high as Charley, and forecasts leading up to landfall indicated it could get as high as 18 feet in spots. Additionally, Ian was only moving at around 10 miles per hour, something which amplified the storm surge, wind, and rainfall impacts.

Estimated return period in years for major hurricanes passing within 50 nautical miles of various locations on the U.S. Coast.(NHC/NOAA.)

Another way to see the dramatic difference in size between the two storms is in this tweet shared by Weather Channel Meteorologist Stu Ostro.

County officials failed to follow pre-established evacuation plans

In what may have been the biggest misstep of all as it related to Hurricane Ian, reports indicate that Lee County officials failed to follow their own pre-established triggers for issuing evacuation orders in advance of Ian. Lee County is home to Fort Myers and appears to be the location of the greatest number of fatalities. Local officials decided to wait until Tuesday, one day before landfall, to issue evacuation orders, even though surrounding counties issued the orders sooner and Lee County’s own plans called for an earlier issuance.

Delaying the evacuation orders put more people in harm’s way and narrowed the window for people to leave once it became clear that Lee County would take a significant hit from the storm. Some officials and even one researcher have referred to a need for more ‘personal responsibility,’ which I don’t disagree with, but it’s also imperative that county officials follow pre-established plans, even when there’s a chance that they may result in people unnecessarily evacuating.

Where do we go from here?

Preventing another significant loss of life from a storm like Hurricane Ian will be the focus of a lot of research and difficult discussions in the days, weeks, and months ahead. From my perspective, meteorologists, emergency managers, and media need to find a way to get coastal residents to focus more on potential impacts, and less on changes from forecast to forecast as a storm approaches. I don’t think we need to blow up the system, get rid of the ‘cone of uncertainty,’ or make significant changes on the National Hurricane Center side of things. The fact of the matter is that people are consuming information from a multitude of sources, often making it difficult to know what’s right, wrong, or uncertain. The focus needs to be on making sure those in impact zones are listening to reliable sources and that those in positions to make critical decisions, including those relating to evacuation, understand forecast uncertainty, even as accuracy continues to improve through the years.

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