Florida’s Population Rise Means Millions More in Hurricane Ian’s Path

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As Stephen Strader watched Hurricane Ian head toward Florida’s west coast, he couldn’t help but think of everything in its path.

“What if Hurricane Ian had happened in 1950? How many people would be affected? said Strader, a risk geographer and professor at Villanova University. “Not as much as today. Our built environment is expanding and developing.

Florida’s appeal has been a constant for generations. But the past few decades have brought more transplants — and more development — than ever before. In few places is this more apparent than along the coastal strip facing Ian’s disastrous impacts, from the Tampa Bay area south to Fort Myers and Naples.

From 1970 to 2020, according to census records, the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area has grown an astonishing 623%, to over 760,000 people. During the same period, the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area grew 283% to nearly 834,000 residents. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater has grown over 187% and is now home to over 3.1 million people.


Cape Coral–Fort Myers the metropolitan area had a

620% increase in population since 1970

North Port-Sarasota–Bradenton +280%

Tampa Bay–St. Petersburg–Clearwater

+190%

Cape Coral–Fort Myers the metropolitan area had a 620%

population increase since 1970

North Port-Sarasota–Bradenton +280%

Tampa Bay–St. Petersburg–Clearwater +190%

Cape Coral–Fort Myers the metropolitan area has seen a 620% increase in population since 1970

North Port–Sarasota–Bradenton +280% since 1970

Tampa Bay–St. Petersburg–Clearwater +190% since 1970

Strader said Florida’s growing population over the past few decades — and the building boom that accompanied it — has put exponentially more assets and more people at risk.

“People want to live near the coast and live near the beach, but that comes at a cost. Unfortunately, we have to bear the brunt of that risk,” Strader said. “There are more people than ever in the path of these storms. Also, many people are going to experience a hurricane for the first time. »

Strader and his fellow researchers refer to these looming risks as the “expanding bulls-eye effect” – the idea that as more humans populate and build in an area, it creates an opportunity bigger and bigger for a weather-related disaster to wreak havoc.

“Then add sea level rise and climate change to that, and you have a multi-headed monster in front of you,” Strader said.

Florida cities are well aware of the risks. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, for example, simulated what damage and recovery from a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane might look like, hoping to help local leaders plan for what scenarios might unfold. .

But even these efforts have done little to halt the state’s feverish development – ​​a reality that persists in many coastal parts of the country.

“Everyone in the room agrees that this is a major problem that we still haven’t solved,” said Rob Young, professor of geology at Western Carolina University and director of the shoreline survey program developed. “It’s a national problem. But Florida has been particularly good at putting more things at risk.

Karen Clark’s Boston-based firm, which models potential disaster impacts, estimated that a direct hit on the Florida coast could cost billions of dollars in losses, in part due to population and real estate growth that has defined the last few decades. But where a storm eventually lands and how it behaves afterward is key.

“Hurricanes are like real estate. The three most important things are location, location, location,” Clark said, adding, “Very slight changes in the track of this storm could mean the losses change by a factor. This is what we observe.

That’s for sure: almost everywhere Ian might have touched land is home to far more people and far more assets than just a generation ago.

“It’s going to affect more people than ever before,” Strader said. “We really haven’t done much to control this growth… What we’re finding is that it’s not sustainable.”

Naema Ahmed contributed to this report.

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