(CNN) — Hurricane Ian hit one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas last week, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk, many of whom have never experienced a hurricane.
Florida has added nearly 3 million people since 2010. And the Fort Myers area, devastated by Ian’s deadly storm surge, was recently named the sixth-fastest growing city in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau. The population of the Fort Myers-Cape Coral metropolitan area was about 444,000 in 2000, according to Census Bureau data. By 2021, it had soared to more than 787,000.
Southwest Florida’s population “has skyrocketed in part because it’s the cheapest part of the state to live in,” according to Jesse Keenan, a professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, who told CNN that there is a tremendous growth in recent decades.
Florida, which is said to be a retiree’s paradise, has recently attracted new residents from parts of the country that historically don’t have much experience with hurricanes. In 2019, Florida saw the most migration from Northeastern states, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to the Census Bureau, in addition to Midwest states.
The influx comes at a time when scientists warn that hurricanes are becoming more destructive, with higher storm surges due to rising sea levels and a new propensity for strong storms to intensify rapidly.
These trends, combined with the region’s increasing population, housing and infrastructure, have made the coast even more vulnerable to strong cyclones.
But little has been done to deter people from moving into the danger zone, experts told CNN.
Southwest Florida is attractive in large part because it has a good quality of life: it’s sunny, warm, and relatively cheap.
But something else is at play: In 2011, Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature loosened decades-old state regulations meant to keep development in high-risk areas at a reasonable pace, or discourage developers from building in low-lying wetlands, Keenan said. .
At the same time, former Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers passed a state budget that eliminated the Department of Community Affairs, a state office that regulates growth and development.
“This has opened the door to uncontrolled development in ways that put people at great risk, especially flood risks,” Keenan said.
The weakening of these rules was welcomed by Florida’s business community and real estate sector, which saw the move as a boost to economic growth. But that growth began to occur in areas that were more risky and vulnerable to cyclones.
“The bottom line is that the state has walked away from the issue and the counties have been left to fend for themselves without adult supervision,” Keenan said. “You build where land is cheap, and you sell those houses at a relatively low price. It’s been a race, and cyclones like this really force everyone to take a break and reevaluate their lives in a lot of ways.”
Jeremy Porter, a senior fellow at the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to climate risks, also noted that hard-hit Cape Coral was built on a flood plain.
“There’s a tremendous amount of risk,” Porter said.
But that risk isn’t necessarily clear to newcomers, and there’s no central resource to help homeowners understand the threat.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps, which are used to determine policy premiums for insurance claims, are not designed to serve as a general assessment tool for the risk to people. In addition, they only consider risk based on past flooding, rather than increasing threat as precipitation rates increase, sea levels rise, and storms become stronger.
A recent report by the First Street Foundation revealed that in 2020, approximately 8.7 million properties are listed in FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Zones, but as many as 14.6 million properties are actually at risk of major flooding.
And that risk increases even more in the future projections of the group. First Street’s analysis showed that by 2050, Cape Coral will be one of the cities with the highest percentage of properties at significant flood risk.
“None of the current standards that are built into maps that go out to the public, especially federal maps, take that future climate change into account,” Porter said.
As Southwest Florida focuses on rebuilding, the question now is whether state and county officials will discourage growth in these vulnerable areas. They can pressure residents to build stronger homes, or give them “carte blanche” to rebuild according to the status quo, said Larry Larson, director emeritus and senior policy adviser of the Association of State Floodplain Managers and an expert. a long time
“The challenge for Florida is going to be that there are a lot of destroyed buildings, homes and things,” Larson told CNN. “What are you going to do if you have them rebuilt?”
There are a few ways that some governments and the private sector can discourage people from buying homes in flood-prone areas. In some cases, the federal or local government may purchase properties that frequently flood and relocate the families who live there.
Another way is to show home buyers the information up front. For example, First Street teamed up with real estate giant Redfin to show potential buyers how prone a property is to flooding. These estimates take the climate crisis into account.
Porter said that Redfin and First Street have seen homebuyers turn away from riskier homes on the market.
“We’re seeing people start interacting with that data,” Porter said. “They look specifically at flood risk scores.”
But it is not infallible. Porter noted that people are not necessarily saying no to flood-prone neighborhoods yet. Instead, they look for lower-risk homes in the same area.
“It doesn’t mean that people are moving out of their real estate market when they see that level of risk,” Porter said.