It is Monday, Oct. 3, and we are now in the post-Ian era of Florida history. Thirty years ago, Hurricane Andrew and its Category 5 wind field irrevocably changed the face of South Florida, left a decade-long impact on the state’s built environment, it’s native habitat, its public policy, and the domestic insurance market.
Now Hurricane Ian — with its Cat 4 coastal destruction, colossal deadly storm surge, river-swelling rain and flood-soaked inland towns — has a cleaved a new Florida map. It will undoubtedly leave a similar mark on everything else.
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
Paradise lost: In Fort Myers Beach, survivors cut off from civilization who have seen little government aid, started leaving on foot Sunday to find water, food and shelter in mainland Florida. In Matlacha, the artsy fishing village on Pine Island in Lee County, many of the colorful cottages, boutiques and restaurants are gone or battered, swallowed by surge or broken by wind. Boats were flung into yards; homes flung into water and the countless slash pines, that inspired the island’s name, are sheared away, opening the shady island to the harsh sky.
In Naples, Ian’s storm surge destroyed the east side of the only historically Black neighborhood in town, leaving its future uncertain. On Sanibel Island, one close-knit retirement community considered “paradise” by some is gone, “along with my retirement plan,” said one resident.
In the inland counties of Southwest Florida, a dangerously engorged Peace River collapsed a bridge, trapped residents in homes and destroyed businesses in DeSoto County. And in Central Florida, Hurricane Ian’s rains swamped lakes, submerged streets, and forced dramatic rescues of motorists trapped in their cars.
At least 85 “Deceased:” Thousands of people caught in the rapidly-rising waters remain unaccounted for as search and rescue teams continued to ride street-to-street in all-terrain vehicles or by foot looking for survivors. Other teams, with cadaver-sniffing dogs, searched for the deceased.
With every new day, we learn the extent of the casualties. The death toll rose to 85 by late Sunday, with Lee County accounting for about half — 42. The search also started shifting from rescue to recovery, as crews found more dead bodies than they were saving trapped people.
John Galatro, who rode out the storm in his condo on Fort Myers Beach, told us he had “seen bodies everywhere.” Ten people died trying to climb to the roof during the height of the surge, he said. He made a sign that read: “Deceased” so search helicopters could see them.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno announced 42 storm-related deaths in his county on Sunday, where the communities of Matlacha, Pine Island, Captiva, Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach saw some of Hurricane Ian’s worst destruction and now account for half of the confirmed deaths statewide.
Most died by drowning, and survivors speculated there could be many more bodies buried under debris or carried away by high waters.
Coastline faces prolonged power outages: By Sunday evening, there were still 792,000 residential and business accounts without power. Florida Power & Light had the most outages — 471,000 — followed by 177,000 at the Lee County Electric Cooperative, which encompassed “ground zero” of the hurricane’s fury. FPL has promised to restore power to most of its customers by next week, but has also warned that for thousands of others, the damage is so complete on the barrier islands and much of the coastline that the grid will need to be reconstructed.
WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
Thousands remain homeless: Three days after the disaster, an estimated 10,000 people remain housed in shelters after evacuating their homes.
Among those evacuated are 642 patients who were transferred from six health care facilities in Charlotte, Lee, Sarasota, Orange, and Volusia counties. The hospitals and nursing homes have since sustained such critical damage, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration, that they “cannot safely operate.” The Naples and Port Charlotte Veterans Affairs clinics are also likely to remain closed and residents of 123 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been evacuated with no indication of when they will return.
Two unidentified nursing homes that had been operating on generator power also were evacuated Sunday.
In search of clean water: There were boil water notices in 22 of Florida’s 67 counties as of late Sunday.
Reconnecting islands: Kevin Guthrie, director of the Division of Emergency Management, said on Saturday the state would bring ferries and barges to remove debris and open roadways on hard-hit Pine Island. On Sunday, the state announced it would construct a temporary bridge to reconnect the island.
Finding the adjectives: The extent and breadth of the damage has resulted in many firsts. For example, there had been more than 1,600 rescues by Sunday morning and there were more urban search and rescue teams in the state than in any U.S. location since 9-11, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
President Joe Biden said Hurricane Ian is “likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history” and suggested Ian could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida’s history — a claim that would require the number of casualties to exceed those from the 1928 hurricane in Okeechobee in which an estimated 1,836 are known to have died.
Biden to visit Florida and Puerto Rico: The White House announced that President Joe Biden will visit Florida on Wednesday to view the damage caused by Hurricane Ian and on Monday will visit Puerto Rico to view the devastation wrought by Hurricane Fiona two weeks ago.
How insured were Ian’s victims?: Florida’s homeowner’s insurance market is in the worst shape it’s been in for decades but, while losses from Hurricane Ian are expected to be in the hundreds of billions, there is money to pay claims. The bigger question is how much will that insurance actually cover?
Preliminary estimates suggest that most property damage from Ian was caused by flooding, not wind. But standard homeowners’ policies do not cover flooding. That’s covered by a separate policy, typically offered under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance company. Statewide, 15% of residential structures are insured with flood insurance and in the areas designated as “Special Flood Hazard Areas,” such as along the coastlines, only about half are insured.
Questions about evacuation: The mounting number of casualties has some people questioning whether Southwest Florida county officials acted with enough urgency to give residents time to leave before Hurricane Ian’s landfall. The day before the storm’s landfall, the Collier County Commission concluded they should pray — for Tampa Bay. Evacuations were mandated for Lee County’s most vulnerable zone 13 hours after Pinellas County issued its first order, and 17 hours after Hillsborough began its evacuations.
During a Sunday press conference, Marceno, the Lee County sheriff, defended the county actions. “I stand 100% with my county commissioners, my county manager. We did what we had to do at the exact same time. I wouldn’t have changed anything,’’ he said. DeSantis on Sunday also defended the decision.
What’s next? There is now growing consensus that sea level rise and higher temperatures will continue to result in storms like Ian, with higher storm surge, more rain and and a frightening ability to strengthen faster. But there is a bit of good news too: these intense storms may not happen with frequency.
What about rebuilding? FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell urges caution when Florida does what it always does and builds back. “When individuals are starting to make decisions about what they’re going to do and what their next steps are, they really need to understand what their risk is,” Criswell told CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday morning. “We need to make sure that we have strong building codes, because we have risks all over.”
DeSantis asks Biden for funds: Before the storm arrived, the governor had petitioned the Biden administration to provide 100% federal cost sharing for debris removal and emergency protective measures for the first 60 days after the storm, and a 90 percent federal cost sharing burden after that.
Hurricane reorients rhetoric: The shift in tone and content did not go unnoticed. The Palm Beach Post’s Frank Cerabino suggested the state now “needs a new socialism-friendly slogan” such as “please, come tread on us with your federal aid.”
The Tampa Bay Times re-posted a 2018 story describing how DeSantis’ first vote when he was elected to Congress was against a $9.7 billion relief package for the New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy. And Matthew Yglesias called it “free-lunch politics” in the Washington Post. “He bashes big government while benefiting from its largesse,’’ Yglesias wrote, suggesting the governor and other conservatives now embrace, rather than criticize, a “hypocritical approach to fiscal matters.”
Big bucks: For a window into the size of the public sector/government effort behind the emergency response, as well as the private sector contribution, here is the running list of needs and services provided by federal, state and local sources from the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Muting political bullhorns: With weeks left until the general election, Hurricane Ian seems to have put a temporary damper on some of the boldest political grandstanding by Florida politicians. Democrats Charlie Crist and Val Demings announced they were suspending their advertising as the hurricane was moving toward Florida, and DeSantis stopped bashing the Biden administration and started commending its response to the emergency.
Just days earlier, DeSantis and the White House were engaged in a back-and-forth over the governor’s decision to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, and what appeared to be an aborted move to fly more to Biden’s home state of Delaware. And earlier in the week, Democratic lawmakers from Massachusetts urged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to investigate whether DeSantis’ charter flight for migrants violated department rules.
Suarez fundraises: Not everything took a backseat to the hurricane, however. After briefing city residents on potential threats from the storm, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez flew to New York City for a fundraiser to support his potential 2024 run for president.
Ballot delays: The hurricane will have an impact on the election schedule, however. With just a week before the deadline for mail ballots to be sent out and less than six weeks until Election Day, election officials are discussing alternative means of voting for counties most affected by Hurricane Ian.
Puerto Rico gets respite: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday granted a “temporary and targeted” Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico, allowing the island to immediately receive fuel shipments needed to recover from the destruction left behind by Hurricane Fiona.
Cuban protests: Cubans in several neighborhoods in Havana and other cities took to the streets on Thursday, banging pots and pans, and demanding the restoration of electric service. Hurricane Ian knocked out part of Cuba’s dilapidated power grid, leaving the country in near total darkness since Tuesday.
Prisoner swap: Seven U.S. citizens imprisoned in Venezuela are free and returning home as part of a prisoner swap announced Saturday by President Joe Biden. The breakthrough that freed the seven Americans wrongfully detained by the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro came after the Biden administration agreed to free two nephews of Maduro who were convicted on drug charges in the United States.
Thank you for reading. Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas curates the Politics and Policy in the Sunshine State newsletter. We appreciate our readers and if you have any ideas or suggestions, please drop me a note at email@example.com.
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