The tragic aftermath of Hurricane Ian has left a trail of death and destruction through southwest and central Florida, not to mention South Carolina.
Cars were picked up and carried along like toys by the powerful storm surge, boats were piled in disorderly fashion on top of each other in and sometimes away from their original ports, and homes were either totally washed out by the storm surge or ripped apart by the heavy winds. The storm is responsible for the deaths of at least 109 people, mostly in Florida and mostly in Lee County, the coastal county that took the most direct hit. It destroyed tens of thousands of homes, plus properties and businesses along the coast and inland, which insurance analysts estimate will cost $40 billion to replace and rebuild. The number of Floridians without power, originally at more than 2 million, has fallen to half a million at the time of writing.
While Florida, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have always been vulnerable to hurricanes, in the past twenty years storms have gotten bigger, stronger, rainier, and more unpredictable. Because of global heating, the oceans have been slowly but steadily warming, and the atmosphere has been absorbing more moisture, leading to wetter, more powerful and more rapidly developing storms over the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. Beginning with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that savaged New Orleans, continuing through Hurricane Harvey in 2017 that dumped record rainfall over Houston for one straight week, to last week with Hurricane Ian, bigger, deadlier and costlier storms are hitting the United States more often.
And who gets hurt the worst? Poor, working class people, many Black and Latino, who live in poorly built homes in flood-prone areas, or in homes unable to withstand heavy winds. Not only are they less likely to live in well protected homes, they are less likely to have the resources to evacuate in the face of a deadly storm. And if they survive, they’re less likely to have insurance, and hence less likely to be able to rebuild. And once a home is destroyed and not repaired, it loses value. This often means the loss of the home, which is then later snapped up by someone with more money, often white, who does have the money to rebuild.
And the responsibility for much of this lies directly at the doorstep of many of Florida’s reactionary politicians – from Governor Ron DeSantis to Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and more – who have long denied the role of fossil fuels in destroying our planet and even today defend the fossil fuel and auto industries from even the slightest threat to their profits.
But worse than that, in Florida a mix of right-wing politicians, fossil fuel propaganda, and the tourism and real estate development industry have created a toxic mix that requires constant population growth throughout the state in order to maintain their profits. This means that, all together, they have continued to encourage development for decades even though they have known about the increasing risks to the state and its people. Even though the entire state is hurricane-prone, even though it is running out of water, even though coastal regions are easy prey for storm surges, and even though most of the state sits less than four feet above sea level, politicians and developers and the tourism industry have promoted the state to outsiders, drawing more and more people into a looming ecological and human disaster. Whereas New York, for example, has held about the same population for decades, Florida’s has increased dramatically, from only 9.5 million in 1980 to nearly 22 million today!
Rather than discourage people from moving to a looming disaster zone, capitalism and its many minions have encouraged the southern migration of people directly into harm’s way, where most will remain as the climate catastrophe worsens. This dense population on a peninsula totally vulnerable to climate change is a recipe for future disaster and human suffering.
Florida – a tragic example of the sickness of this system.