50.50: Opinion

Hurricane Ian’s destruction may soon be the norm. The US isn’t ready

OPINION: By rejecting action on climate change as ‘left-wing’, Florida’s governor paved way for worsening inequality

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
30 September 2022, 3.35pm

People explore a section of destroyed businesses at Fort Myers Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Ian hit

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Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

Although I currently reside in Oregon, which is literally in the opposite corner of the United States from Florida, the devastating impact that Hurricane Ian is having on that state hits close to home for me.

I lived in Tampa, Florida, when Hurricane Irma hit, in September 2017. At the time, I was a few weeks into the beginning of the last of my three years as a postdoctoral scholar and visiting instructor at the University of South Florida (USF). Irma seemed to be headed straight for Tampa, and I had to prepare for the worst.

In my second-floor apartment, I placed large furniture face down on the floor in the rooms with windows and holed up in the hallway with a stash of fresh water, dry goods, and summer sausage (which doesn’t need refrigerating) to wait out the storm and its aftermath.

Ultimately, areas to the south of us sustained greater damage. In the end, I only lost power for almost two full days. Some people in my neighbourhood didn’t lose power at all; others in Tampa experienced outages for far longer.

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By the official count, Irma took 134 lives, but a few years later researchers from USF and Brown University published a study in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, concluding that the deaths of hundreds more elderly Florida residents, who were housed in nursing homes and died within 90 days of Irma’s landfall, likely resulted from the catastrophic disruption the massive storm caused.

We don’t yet know what the death toll for Hurricane Ian will be, but local officials have made grim predictions of possibly hundreds of deaths, and President Joe Biden has suggested there will be “substantial loss of life” as he mobilises federal assistance.

Ian made landfall as a category 4 hurricane in and around Fort Myers, Florida, a part of the state where I have relatives and where I’ve periodically spent time since I was nine years old, enjoying boat rides and seafood and getting to see the remarkable wildlife that includes manatees, porpoises, and a motley collection of strange shorebirds like cormorants, ibises and spoonbills. And, of course, alligators.

The area attracts both retirees and tourists from the Midwest (a vaguely defined American region that includes my home state of Indiana), and it’s sobering to look at the pictures of grounded boats and flattened buildings – some now reduced to exposed concrete foundations and nothing else – in the wake of reported 12-foot storm surges.

The Republican Party’s politicisation of public health concerns and climate change has been disastrous for the US

A part of the bridge to the nearby Sanibel and Captiva Islands – popular tourist destinations for their Gulf Coast beaches, restaurants, and shops – is out, indefinitely blocking all road traffic between the islands and the mainland. And a massive concrete piece of the Fort Myers Pier turned up some three miles inland, where it now sits as a sort of monument to the incredible destruction such a colossal hurricane can wreak.

When faced with a catastrophic weather event, our focus naturally gravitates to the immediate death and destruction incurred. But as the study mentioned above reminds us, such events also cause less immediately visible but still significantly destructive social fallout, which we will also need to address as we face a future in which climate change is rendering large, powerful storms increasingly common.

In addition to premature death, there’s the question of victims of domestic violence being compelled to shelter in place with their abusers – a problem that was widely discussed in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and that was also addressed in the media in relation to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. Beyond that, of course, we are most likely facing a future in which climate refugees will be leaving heavily affected areas, creating more challenges to address with respect to inequality, housing, healthcare access, and infrastructure in the remaining habitable areas – challenges that, in all honesty, I do not expect the US to meet effectively, given the crisis situation we already face around extreme income equality and houselessness.

Failure to respond proactively to the catastrophic weather events that we know climate change will bring exacerbates the harm and social challenges these events cause – harm and challenges that remain long after the initial photos and videos of destruction are released. And Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has backed away from what seemed to be an earlier commitment to take climate change seriously and direct state policy and funding accordingly. He recently denounced environmentalists for their “ideology” and dismissed actions to mitigate the effects of climate change as “left-wing stuff”.

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DeSantis is one of America’s most rabidly anti-trans, anti-abortion, and anti-immigrant politicians. He seems to delight in trolling Democrats and progressives, and he has a penchant for political theatre that plays well to the Republican Party’s extreme base, which craves culture wars. DeSantis is considered a likely replacement for Donald Trump on the GOP presidential ballot in 2024, and his path to the GOP candidacy – and possibly to the presidency – lies in politicising every issue, from mask and vaccination requirements in matters of public health to the rights of queer individuals.

Neither pandemics nor hurricanes are respecters of electoral politics or election years. The authoritarian Republican Party’s politicisation of responses to public health concerns and climate change has been disastrous for the United States, and, because of America’s global influence, for the world.

The Gulf Coast of Florida I knew and loved as a child will never be the same after Hurricane Ian. As for DeSantis, his handling of the emergency situation facing Florida now will show whether he’s ever possessed an authentic shred of social responsibility and human decency. But even if he surprises us all and handles the situation well, it will likely be too little, too late to stave off the worst.

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