This Florida woman survived her 'biggest mistake' in Hurricane Ian. Why experts say many others didn't

Kimberly Lenehan Payano evacuated her North Fort Myers home during Hurricane Irma five years ago under dire warnings of storm surge and winds, then returned to an untouched house.

She decided not to leave for Hurricane Ian.

“It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life. Big, big mistake,” Payano said this week.

Many of her neighbors stayed, too, some not even boarding up windows. She still doesn’t know how they fared. If not for a couple of men with a small boat, she and her 12-year-old son could have been among the dozens who died.

The rising death toll in Florida, now at 75, is confirmation many did not evacuate.

Including five deaths in North Carolina and one in Virginia, Ian ranks among the continental United States’ top 30 deadliest storms. It’s also the 11th storm in the past 22 years to claim more than 50 lives on the mainland.

Jonathan Strong holds his vest above the water as he wades through floodwaters while knocking on doors in a flooded mobile home community in Iona, an unincorporated community in Lee County near Fort Myers, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Strong, who is unaffiliated with any volunteer group, said he came out to help because, "I can't just sit around while my house is intact and let other people suffer. It's what we do; community helping community." Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday, Sept. 28, as a Category 4 hurricane on the southwest coast of Florida.
Jonathan Strong holds his vest above the water as he wades through floodwaters while knocking on doors in a flooded mobile home community in Iona, an unincorporated community in Lee County near Fort Myers, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Strong, who is unaffiliated with any volunteer group, said he came out to help because, "I can't just sit around while my house is intact and let other people suffer. It's what we do; community helping community." Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday, Sept. 28, as a Category 4 hurricane on the southwest coast of Florida.

With warmer ocean temperatures driving increasing rainfall and other climate-related changes forecast to occur, researchers predict bigger and even deadlier disasters.

“The risk posed by these storms is only going to increase ... because of sea level rise and increasing population density,” said Amber Silver, a disaster researcher and assistant professor at the University of Albany in New York. “When you have more and more people in vulnerable regions becoming increasingly vulnerable due to global climate change and sea level rise, we're going to see some of these shocking events with large death tolls and large economic losses.”

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The Ian-related deaths illustrate how the impacts of a disaster aren’t just driven by a hurricane's strength, said Stephen Strader, associate professor at Villanova University. They’re influenced by how vulnerable people are and the choices they make.

“We’re seeing more people than ever before moving to the coastlines and putting themselves into vulnerable positions,” Strader said.

Florida is a prime example.

“Since Hurricane Andrew (in 1992), Florida’s population has increased 60% and the number of homes has doubled," Strader said. "That means more people in the path.”

The state’s population over the age of 65 is growing and that increases the risks because it may be harder for those individuals to evacuate, researchers said. The average age among the confirmed deaths in Ian so far is nearly 71.

Homes are flooded from the rising waters of the Peace River after Hurricane Ian on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in DeSoto County outside Arcadia, Fla.
Homes are flooded from the rising waters of the Peace River after Hurricane Ian on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in DeSoto County outside Arcadia, Fla.

Many of the hurricane-related deaths reported in Florida were among people who didn’t evacuate ahead of Ian’s 150 mph winds and storm surge, despite forecasts and warnings from government officials.

At least 10 people drowned inside their homes. Others were found on beaches and among piles of debris.

Payano’s narrow escape and the many deaths reflect the challenges of communicating personal risk to people in vulnerable areas as they are making life and death decisions, Silver said. “It’s never a simple 'yes or no' question. It’s, when and where and how long? And can I afford to leave?"

It’s a very emotional time, in a situation with high uncertainty and urgency, she said.

“That’s a really uncomfortable feeling," Payano said.

People have “a strong sense of home and place,” said Robbie M. Parks, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. “If their evacuation prospects are a shelter and lying down with strangers, they may not want to evacuate.”

As they try to make their decisions, people go through a process of seeking out information, conferring with friends, neighbors and family, Silver said.

That may include misinformation.

“The lack of universal truth in society permeates pandemics. It permeates natural disasters,” Parks said. “So people may not be completely faithful that the news they’re hearing about hurricanes is true. That’s a very deep-set problem that is much harder to fix.”

Vehicles sit in flood water at the Palm Isle apartments in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Hurricane Ian carved a path of destruction across Florida, trapping people in flooded homes, cutting off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroying a historic waterfront pier and knocking out power to 2.5 million people as it dumped rain over a huge area on Thursday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Vehicles sit in flood water at the Palm Isle apartments in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Hurricane Ian carved a path of destruction across Florida, trapping people in flooded homes, cutting off the only bridge to a barrier island, destroying a historic waterfront pier and knocking out power to 2.5 million people as it dumped rain over a huge area on Thursday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to make judgments about how people made their decisions, said disaster researcher Samantha Montano, an assistant professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. But, she said, “People generally are trying to make the best decisions for them and their families with the resources they have.”

Individual circumstances and whether people have resources to evacuate are a major influence, Montano said: “Do they have a car? Do they have money for gas? Do they have money for a hotel room?”

Residents in many hurricane-prone areas also fail to understand the dangers of water.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 taught Floridians to fear the wind, Strader said, but as many as 90% of hurricane deaths are attributed to storm surge and rainfall.

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Michael Luff' stacks items from her flooded home on the curb in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, on Oct. 3, 2022. - The confirmed death toll from Hurricane Ian, which slammed the southeast United States last week, has risen to at least 62, officials said on Oct. 2, 2022.
Michael Luff' stacks items from her flooded home on the curb in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, on Oct. 3, 2022. - The confirmed death toll from Hurricane Ian, which slammed the southeast United States last week, has risen to at least 62, officials said on Oct. 2, 2022.

In Volusia County – on the opposite side of Florida from Ian’s landfall – five people died from drowning and hundreds were rescued from flash flooding that resulted from the intense rain and surging sea.

State medical examiners attribute more than half of Ian’s deaths so far to drowning.

Things turned grim fast for Payano as the Caloosahatchee River topped its banks and rushed into her home. They had planned to drive away if the water started rising, then “half of a neighbor’s home landed in the driveway” and pinned them in.

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As the water rose, she posted a plea for help in a Facebook video, and they watched a barge float by, then a sofa.

Waist-high water swirled around them when rescuers arrived and lifted her son, the family dog and the cat, tucked into a bag, into a small rowboat. Shoving her cellphone and charger into her bra, and without grabbing her glasses or her purse, Payano stepped out of the door into neck-deep water.

A street is flooded after Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in North Fort Myers, Fla.
A street is flooded after Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in North Fort Myers, Fla.

She was swept off her feet a couple of times and went under as she and rescuers pulled the boat with her son and pets more than a mile to a staging area on a bridge, she said.

“We got about halfway and I said, ‘Go without me,"’ she said. 'I didn’t care if I was going to die right there in the water.”

Now staying with friends temporarily, Payano wonders whether she should rebuild on her lot with 200 feet of frontage on the Caloosahatchee River, or cut her losses and move.

She has homeowners and flood insurance, but it’s a tough choice she’s heard other friends and neighbors debating.

As she looks at the devastation around her and considers the forecast for more extreme rainfall, warmer oceans and rising sea levels, she’s not really sure she wants to stay.

“If I didn't have a son in school, I’d be leaving the state of Florida right now," she said.

WATCH: Inside the search for Hurricane Ian's survivors

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida woman survived Hurricane Ian, shares her 'biggest mistake'