Storm Surge Creates Ongoing Health, Safety And Financial Hazards For Hurricane Ian Survivors

Hurricanes damage buildings in two major ways: Wind damage and flooding. In Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in Lee County, Florida last Wednesday, water was definitely a major factor, carrying homes off of their foundations, sweeping boats, cars and sea life through neighborhood streets and flooding roads, parks and structures. “Overwhelmingly, it’s been that surge that has been the biggest issue,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said following landfall.

A dramatic two and a half minute time-lapse video produced by a storm chaser and carried on several news sites, starts with a car driving down a windy, rain-slicked Fort Myers street – typical for this time of year in Florida. As the clip continues, the street is inundated with storm surge waves, rising as high as 15 feet. (DeSantis reported a peak of 12 feet in his post-storm comments.) Toward the end of the video, a building has been swept off of its foundation, palm trees are almost completely swamped and power lines struggle to stay upright. The final shot is the devastated street filled with debris, many of the structures passed by the car in the first scene have vanished. When will this street be rebuilt? When will it be safe for residents and business owners to resume their lives? What hazards does flooding present to life, health and safety – particularly at home?

Property Damage

“The destructive power of storm surge and large battering waves can result in loss of life, buildings destroyed, beach and dune erosion and road and bridge damage along the coast,” reports the National Hurricane Center. That was certainly the case with Ian, already ranked as one of the most destructive to hit Florida. Searches are still underway for survivors, casualties are still being counted, and some highways are still underwater, cutting locals off from the rest of the state. “Storm surge can travel several miles inland,” NHC points out, so it’s not just the homes and businesses on barrier islands or along the beach that are impacted by powerful storms like these. The more intensification, the more risk to low-lying areas outside of known flood zones.

“This is the costliest Florida storm since Hurricane Andrew made landfall in 1992 and a record number of homes and properties were lost due to Hurricane Ian’s intense and destructive characteristics,” observed Tom Larsen, an associate vice president with data provider CoreLogic. According to the firm’s analysis, insured storm surge losses alone are expected to cost $6 to $15 billion in damage in Florida. “Residents will experience standing water and sewer backups for days, slowing immediate recovery. Significant infrastructure damage will also impede local governments’ ability to respond,” the firm predicts.

“We’re at a crossroads with Hurricane Ian in terms of adapting to today’s catastrophe risk environment,” Larsen commented. “Infrastructure and building codes will evolve so that we can be more resilient ahead of what are bound to be more history-making storms in the near future. We cannot just rebuild; we need to restore for resilience,” (a concern shared by the American Institute of Architects in a recent report).

Health Hazards

In addition to the immediate safety risks of drowning and blunt trauma injuries associated with storm surge during the actual hurricane, there are longer-term physical and mental health impacts. “Exposure to floodwaters or drinking water that is contaminated with pathogens or harmful chemicals can cause gastrointestinal issues; wound infections; and ear, nose, and throat infections. People are more likely to be exposed to contaminated drinking water if local water infrastructure is flooded,” according to the CDC in a Climate and Health Report. The agency also points to increased waterborne disease outbreak risks if the floodwaters become contaminated with sewage, chemicals, agricultural waste or other pollutants. Mold is another potential hazard of water-soaked buildings if it’s not properly mitigated before residents return. “People living in damp indoor environments can be prone to more episodes of asthma, rhinitis cough, wheeze, and respiratory infections,” the report added.

Individuals with disabilities, compromised immune systems, and existing illnesses are at an increased health risks. Pregnant women and newborns are also especially vulnerable, the CDC commented. “After Hurricane Katrina, flood exposure was associated with preterm births and low birth weight.”

Mental Health Risks

“Mental health and stress-related disorders can occur, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or behavioral changes like increased aggression. These health impacts are especially prevalent when extreme events lead to physical injury or illness, require evacuation or dislocation, or cause economic hardship and stress,” the CDC report notes. This is likely to be the case for Hurricane Ian’s aftermath.

“As the storms become more severe, so do the mental health consequences,” shared a report summarized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “In fact, the storms do more widespread damage to minds than to bodies… Simply stated, more people are affected psychologically than medically after any given hurricane.” These severe weather events lead to mental disorders among previously healthy people and exacerbate conditions of those with preexisting mental illnesses.

Financial Stress

Damaged or destroyed homes, community services interrupted, jobs at risk – especially in tourist areas – and insurance challenges can all create stress for homeowners. Florida’s property insurance market was already in an endangered state before Ian, with insolvency, market departure, non-renewals for homeowners, substantial rate increases and much harder-to-find policies. “Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate Tasha Carter commented that ‘Homeowners insurance options in Florida have become more and more limited, and consumers are facing dire consequences,’” reported Bankrate.

Like millions of other Americans, many of those who still have homeowner’s coverage lack flood insurance, often because their area is not listed as being in a flood plain. Since storm surge can – and does – reach inland areas, there will be numerous Ian survivors who aren’t covered by their policies for the damage done to their homes. FEMA and a range of nonprofit organizations will help them recover, but it’s likely to be slow-going. I saw that first-hand during my years in Florida.

Hurricane Redux

In 2004, Lee County was hammered by Hurricane Charley. I was living in Tampa at the time, a few months into a career in kitchen and bath design. Two years later, I was designing at a members-only showroom when a project hit my inbox. It was a luxury duplex on a barrier island near now cut-off Sanibel, called Useppa that had been leveled by Charley. (I’ve been checking since last week on Useppa’s storm damage and it came through relatively unscathed, according to one property owner’s Facebook account.)

I don’t know if it took two years to start rebuilding my clients’ duplex because of delayed insurance claims or the additional costs of rebuilding, but I expect it’s going to be awhile before many homeowners across the Ian-impacted areas are made whole again – and those are the lucky ones with coverage.

There could be value in those seeking more resilience in studying Babcock Ranch, the master planned community built in the wake of Charley, which survived Ian relatively well because of its storm planning measures.

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