For those who have spent most of their lives in Florida, as I have, the apocalyptic photos that emerged after Hurricane Ian are painfully familiar. The flooded roadways. The shattered storefronts. The flattened landscapes. The unending miles of debris. And more than 100 dead in my state alone.
I remember those horrors too well. I survived Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5, packed into a walk-in closet with seven other family members, including four terrified children. During that interminable night, I discovered that few things sound as scary as howling winds and splintering roof trusses. However, that wasn’t the worst part of the experience.
Rebuilding was. Gusts subsided and water receded but putting a life — and a home — back together took much longer. After Andrew, we were out of our house for almost seven months. The kitchen wasn’t done when we moved back, but I was desperate to return. I was very pregnant with my youngest and needed the semblance of a routine.
It would take well over a decade for my wider neighborhood to recover, and the experience marked me for life. I came away with a renewed respect for the wonder — and danger — of nature.
We’ve been through other hurricanes since 1992. Wilma, a Category 3, tore through the roof of our old house in 2005. That same year two other hurricanes — Rita and Katrina — slapped us hard, too. Then, in 2017, Irma flooded a trailer home we own on the state’s west coast. But none matched the fury of Andrew. I hope none ever do.
Nonetheless, Ian has been particularly difficult for me to process. Part of that dread, I think, is the path it was predicted to take. A son and a brother live in St. Petersburg, both a short walk from Tampa Bay. Another son lives south of Orlando. All would’ve gotten slammed had Ian not made landfall elsewhere.
They suffered minimal damage — water seeping through windows, a gate fence blown away — but nothing like the devastation in counties farther south. Some of our friends, on the other hand, weren’t so lucky. Those in Fort Myers and Naples have suffered huge property losses, and one farther inland in Bartow reported several trees down. We suspect that the quaint spots we like to visit on that side of the coast may never reopen. After all, calamities have a way of rearranging the map of entire towns.
So, yes, news of this kind should unsettle me, but there’s more to my disquiet than that. These hurricanes and several near-misses have forced me to reassess not only how I live but also where and why.
I claim residence in what one expert called “the most hurricane-ravaged state in the country.” There’s a good reason for that. We have 1,350 miles of coastline, second only to Alaska in that department. We also happen to stick out like a middle finger into warm, hurricane-feeding ocean waters. In short, we’ve got a target on our back.
That target — at least in terms of numbers — has only gotten bigger. Florida’s population has grown 60% since Hurricane Andrew, and most newcomers have settled along the coasts, where the scenery is amazing but also where hurricane forces can be most destructive. That sun-and-surf lifestyle eventually exacts a price.
Knowing this, I must ask myself the inescapable questions. Should I continue to live in a place where experiencing a monster storm (again) is just a matter of time? Are there better ways to build in the Sunshine State? How much risk am I willing to assume for a slice of paradise?
Arriving at the answers is turning out to be a lot harder than I thought.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.