While many questions still linger, Florida has learned a lot about itself, the National Hurricane Center and the future of forecasting in the 10 days since Hurricane Ian ravaged the state.
The Category 4 hurricane roared ashore in Southwest Florida with 150 mph sustained winds, making landfall at Cayo Costa State Park and headed up into Charlotte Harbor just like Hurricane Charley in 2004.
Ian then traveled northeast up the state knocking on Central Florida’s door with Category 1 winds. It was downgraded into a tropical storm as it passed south of Orlando, leaving neighborhoods deluged with rain and producing 1-in-500-year amounts of rainfall in some areas, and 1-in-a-1000-year amounts along some Gulf Coast communities.
Placida, north of where Ian made landfall, received more than 15 inches of rain in over 12 hours, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Further inland, Lake Wales reported nearly 17 inches of rain within 24 hours.
Ian’s death count is still climbing — a running total of 115 as of Friday, according to state and county officials. The rising toll makes Ian the deadliest hurricane to hit Florida since the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which killed more than 400 people, according to the National Hurricane Center. For Florida, Ian now stands deadlier than 2017′s Hurricane Irma, 1992′s Hurricane Andrew and 2004′s Hurricane Francis.
The deadliest hurricane in Florida history was the 1928 storm that struck Palm Beach County, killing 1,836 people, according to the NHC.
Five of Ian’s fatalities occurred in Volusia County, but the majority of deaths, 55 fatalities, were in Lee County alone, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
As Florida’s recovery is in its infancy, many questions about the storm and its effects linger. However, there are some things that we’ve learned since Ian’s passing.
Ian’s historical value wasn’t oversold
In the dark early hours of Wednesday, Sept. 28 Adam Abitbol was the onboard commander of the NOAA’s hurricane hunter P-3 aircraft, “Kermit,” as it flew into the eye of Ian to survey its power.
He and the crew had previously flown into the storm Tuesday to collect data. But 24 hours later Ian had intensified so much that “it was like flying into a different storm,” Abitbol said.
“We had a couple of veterans on the aircraft, and fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve had 150 flights through storms. (Ian) was a top 2 or 3 storm for me. It was one of the most violent, turbulent storms we had ever been through,” Abitbol said. His No. 1 most challenging hurricane fly-through was 2015′s Hurricane Patricia — the most powerful hurricane on record with maximum winds of 214 mph.
“Ian was powerful with a lot of vertical wind and dynamic changes. That was challenging for the aircraft. It made for a pretty thrilling ride,” he said.
Ian recorded maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, just shy of a Category 5 storm, as it neared landfall. Category 5 has sustained winds of 157 mph. Ian was the sixth major hurricane to make landfall over Florida in the last 30 years, according to the NOAA.
It was also the first Category 4 hurricane to impact Southwest Florida since Charley in 2004. Ian swept the coast with a storm surge pushing water levels 12 to 18 feet along the southwestern Florida coast. In particular, Fort Myers was met with a record-high 7.26-foot surge.
At one point, Ian was forecast to pass directly over Orlando. The path changed and the storm passed farther south over Lakeland, where the Lakeland Linder International Airport is located — the home base of NOAA’s hurricane hunters.
The forecast was difficult to make but accurate
Since Ian’s passing, Lee County officials have been facing scrutiny for waiting until the day before Ian’s landfall to issue an evacuation order. Gov. Ron DeSantis defended Lee County’s decision to hold off and blamed the media for focusing much of its attention on Tampa Bay. He also stated that Lee officials were working with “imperfect information.”
The NHC declined to comment on its Hurricane Ian forecasting and its communications to area residents.
However, many have been quick to defend the NHC.
Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher from the University of Miami, shared on Twitter a graphic displaying every cone of uncertainty from the NHC’s advisory 1 to advisory 24 — the last update before landfall — which showed Lee County was always in the likely area for landfall.
“If you know for five days that there’s a 67% chance that something very bad is going to happen to you, wouldn’t you take that seriously?” McNoldy tweeted.
Dr. Kelly Stevens, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida with a background in state meteorology, pointed to not only the NHC’s consistent forecasting but also the extreme difficulty in projecting a path for this particular storm due to atmospheric factors.
“The leading factor that made this challenging was that there was a cold front that was forecast to come down from the continental United States, which would eventually turn the storm to the right,” she said. “But the forecasting on where that cold front would be, how strong it would be, how far south it would make, was really undetermined.”
That front is what ultimately pushed the storm toward southwest Florida. Adding to the difficulty was Ian’s slow development and lack of circulation, Stevens said.
“Until they had the center of circulation, which happened the weekend before, it’s really more difficult to forecast exactly where it was going to go,” she said.
Overall, Stevens said she was impressed with the NHC’s forecast and tracking a difficult storm. However, one that she thinks can improve is communicating an understanding as to what the cone of uncertainty actually is — which is based on forecast errors by the NHC over the last five years and is a probability of where the storm “might” go.
“But we as human beings get very fixated on the line (in the cone), and we want certainty,” she said. “It’s very uncomfortable not to know things with certainty. So I think one thing to learn is what that cone means.”
Additionally, Stevens believes better efforts can be made to communicate the threats of storm surges and tropical storm-force winds that might extend outside of the center of the cone.
Orange County’s recovery is going to take a while
While southwest counties bore the biggest burdens of Ian’s force, Orange County suffered considerable damage, too.
Ian’s power downgraded to a tropical storm upon passing south of Orlando, but dumped historical amounts of rainfall over the area, and toppled trees and poles with its tropical-storm-force winds and hurricane-force gusts.
On Thursday Amy Mercado, Orange County’s property appraiser, said during a press conference the county was still assessing the impact but had estimated about $172 million in damages — a combination of public and private sector properties.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings also stated that the county had on Wednesday alone deposited 6,000 tons of debris, which is 71% higher than normal.
As of Thursday, all but one of Orange County’s shelters had closed. The last remaining shelter, the South Econ Recreational Center, had 116 people and 26 pets in need of help. Orange is working to relocate them.
“That’s going to be a process,” Demings said. For some of those families, their homes are going to have to have substantial renovation work done within them. Some will recover in a matter of days. Some will take a matter of months.”
Demings also said infrastructure improvements to insulate against future storms could take a couple of years. Orange has been working since the last major storm, 2017′s Hurricane Irma, to improve county infrastructure.
Some of Orange County’s most deluged neighborhoods included the unincorporated community of Orlo Vista and apartment complexes such as Arden Villas and Cypress Landing, the latter of which was home to more than 200 families.
Orlo Vista gained attention as its residents suffered through yet another flooding, with one 21-year resident telling the Orlando Sentinel he’s seen Orlo Vista flood out from six hurricanes. The National Weather Service said Ian deposited 9 to 10 inches of rain in the area.
When asked why nothing has been done to improve Orlo Vista’s infrastructure, Demings said there is an engineering plan in place, but the hurricane struck before the county was ready.
“We knew (Orlo Vista) would flood. There’s nothing we could’ve done to prevent the type of flooding you’ve seen countywide because it was a hurricane. — a once-in-500-year phenomenon — that we’re dealing with. There’s no system that would’ve been adequate enough to deal with the rainfall we saw at one time,” Demings said.
UCF’s Thomas Wahl, a professor of civil engineering, agrees that residential stormwater systems are not designed to cope with 100-year or 1,000-year rain events.
“Of course, one could design for much bigger storms, but the big question is if that is economically feasible given the small likelihood of such extreme events to occur,” he said. “With climate change, we will see more extreme events so that needs to be factored in when updating our aging infrastructure.”
The future of hurricane tracking has strong wings
One bright note of Hurricane Ian was the chance for an experimental technology to spread its 8-foot wingspan. After three years of testing, the ALTIUS-600 uncrewed aircraft system was deployed into its first hurricane while launching from an NOAA P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft during Ian’s rapid intensification period.
“To be able to execute a launch during a historic landfall on the Florida coast is pretty impactful in a lot of ways,” said Abitbol. “We were able to demonstrate that we could launch an uncrewed aerial system from a P-3, and proved it had tremendous endurance and survivability.”
ALTIUS ventured through Ian, a Category 4 storm, for two hours. All the while, an NOAA crew was able to command its movements and have it pass through specific parts of the storm. ALTIUS is designed to soar through low and medium altitudes in a storm, or about 3,000 feet above the sea surface, where it’s too dangerous for human pilots to take aircraft through.
Granted, the NOAA has had technology that can pass through this dynamic mixed layer of air and seawater in the form of dropsondes. But dropsondes are limited in their movement falling from an aircraft, passing through the storm, and ending their journey in the water. ALTIUS would be able to make several pass-throughs and provide the NHC with data to refine its forecast.
The 27-pound drone has a range of 275 miles and can travel up to 100 mph. Along with passing through the eyewall, ALTIUS also accomplished traveling 2,300 feet above the sea surface where it recorded winds over 216 mph, and at one point even descended to as low as 200 feet, the NOAA said in a release.
“To get two hours of continuous data collection from (ALTIUS) was incredible for us,” Abitbol said.
While successful, ALTIUS is still too experimental to use its collections for updating storm models. The collected data still needs to be validated, and that could take a while, Abitbol said. But Dr. Joe Cione, NOAA’s lead meteorologist, is pleased enough with ALTIUS’s first flight.
“On its first try, ALTIUS did what we hoped it would do; keep humans out of harm’s way,” he said. “If [ALTIUS] survives this, it will survive anything.”