Just ten days ago, few could have guessed the multitude of ways that Hurricane Ian would alter the future of Florida. This week we’ll take a look at how Ian has impacted everything from predictions to storm prep, and from property insurance to political campaigns.
Five days of dramatic forecast shifts for Fort Myers
In a span of five days before Ian made landfall, Fort Myers residents faced tough decisions based on the unpredictable path and strength of Ian. The storm’s path and strength wavered significantly, likely causing many to hesitate or pause their storm preparation over the weekend, while officials focused the bulk of their storm prep and warnings on Tampa and larger communities that were, for a crucial period, directly in the forecast path.
It’s worth a quick review of how things shifted so dramatically.
At 5am Friday, September 23rd, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned that Tropical Storm Ian would become a hurricane aiming somewhere between Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. Governor Ron DeSantis wasted no time declaring a state of emergency for 24 counties in the potential storm’s path. By 11am, the NHC upgraded the forecast to predict Ian would become a “major” hurricane (Category 3 or above) before making landfall. But where was it headed?
But in the ensuing days, the path wavered. From that first warning until 11am Tuesday, Fort Myers residents and local officials had every reason to believe they might be spared from a serious hit. Ian’s projected track shifted dramatically north, first aiming for Tallahassee, with residents in Fort Myers and even Sanibel Island breathing a sigh of relief after the NHC’s “cone of uncertainty” showed they were ever-so-slightly just outside of the storm’s potential path.
It wouldn’t last. Gradually, Ian’s path drifted slowly southward, but still only as a Category 2 storm or below.
As late as 5am Tuesday, the storm was still aiming generally for Tampa, 100 miles to the north. It wasn’t until at 11am on Tuesday, just 28 hours before landfall, that Ian started showing a southward drift that would eventually bring the heart of the deadly storm on a direct path for Fort Myers.
That shift between 2am and 11am Tuesday was dramatic – both in the hurricane’s path and its strength. There is a huge difference in the way people – including public officials, and local residents – react to a Category 2 storm headed for landfall 100+ miles away, and a direct hit from a near-Category 5 storm. And while it’s prudent to err on the side of caution, there is a delicate balancing act required so that the public isn’t unnecessarily lulled by false alarms, or stirred into abject panic. State and local officials and residents of Fort Myers were thrust into a tough situation with little warning.
Media reports from various outlets on Sunday morning peg the Florida death toll from a low of 44 to as many as 70 lives lost from Ian, and that number could still climb.
Will Ian prompt a special session on property insurance in November?
A handful of insurance journals are already out with some raw exposure data for a handful of insurers that make their data public, and it’s not pretty. Most of the estimates focus on the hardest-hit counties in Ian’s wake, which include Manatee, Sarasota, Desoto, Charlotte and Lee, and include six different companies, including state-backed Citizens with very preliminary estimates of approximately 225,000 expected claims with a potential exposure of about $3.8 billion. If that estimate is correct, it’s a painful but survivable number for Citizens.
But that’s a pretty big “if.”
Other companies include USAA and its affiliates, with about $6.8 billion in total exposure, Cypress Property and Casualty Insurance, at $4.4 billion in exposure, Allstate’s Castle Key Indemnity Company, at $4.3 billion, TypTap Insurance, with estimated exposure at $3.7 billion. All told, that’s about $23 billion, and doesn’t include a number of Florida insurers who don’t publish their data. The total exposure will undoubtedly be significantly higher. Many of those estimates were made before the reality of Ian’s power was fully known. And flood damage is likely excluded from most of those damage estimates, meaning many homeowners who aren’t covered in case of flooding will have to appeal to the federal government for relief.
What is fully known is that Florida’s property insurance woes are going to dominate the headlines for months to come, and pressure is mounting on state lawmakers to do something to address the mounting problem of rising premiums, scarce coverage, and the yet-to-be-determined financial impact of Ian.
After every major disaster, scammers descend on the stricken areas to prey on victims or leverage their claims to take advantage of insurers. Whether due to contractors who promise water damage mitigation, roofers who exploit the state’s lenient “assignment of benefits” provision, or lawyers eager to collect a roster of plaintiffs to pressure insurers into quick settlements, a lot of money is set to change hands in the coming months.
It all adds up to a situation that could require quick action to address the needs of homeowners and insurance companies, both of which need each other to coexist in Florida.
The 2022 governor’s race is completely out of Charlie Crist’s control
Even before Hurricane Ian roared ashore last week erasing homes and livelihoods along the way, Charlie Crist was destined to lose his third statewide election come November. Trailing in every credible poll, and badly trailing in fundraising, Crist needed something, anything, to change the game, to shake up the electorate, to give his dying political career a much-needed shot in the arm.
The conventional wisdom from many pundits is that Hurricane Ian has given Charlie Crist a fighting chance. They are wrong.
Only if Governor Ron DeSantis screws up, and screws up badly, could Charlie Crist have any shot. And unless that happens, this campaign is now completely out of Crist’s control. He’s now relegated to the task of trying to be seen on TV handing out water in the disaster zone from now until November, trying to outdo DeSantis in showing that he cares. Meanwhile DeSantis will controls much of the news cycle over the final five weeks of the campaign.
Crist’s situation is not unlike that of a football team trailing by several scores, late in the game. DeSantis has the ball, and Crist not only needs a turnover and a touchdown, but several of both.
That’s because, historically, Floridians have shown themselves to be extremely forgiving and bipartisan when it comes to hurricane responses – as long as their governor is showing true leadership. Case in point: after Hurricane Wilma ripped ashore in October 2005, blazing a similar trail to that of Ian, millions of residents in South Florida found themselves desperate for ice and water. Delivery trucks had been delayed by a lack of fuel and some miscommunication between FEMA and state emergency planners. At designated distribution points, citizens waited hours for shipments that never came. Then-Governor Jeb Bush suddenly found himself in the unwanted position of his response being compared with the similar failures of Hurricane Katrina, which had made landfall only two months earlier.
Rather than point fingers, Jeb Bush owned the mistake. Here’s how the AP covered it:
Governor Jeb Bush took the blame yesterday for frustrating delays at centers distributing supplies to victims of Hurricane Wilma, saying criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was misdirected.
”Don’t blame FEMA. This is our responsibility,” Bush said at a news conference in Tallahassee with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the agency.
And the result? According to a Quinnipiac poll of voters views of the state’s response to Hurricane Wilma, when compared with the previous year, approval dropped from a high of nearly 80 percent in the aftermath of the extremely destructive 2004 hurricane season, to…drumroll please… a low of 69 percent. Of course, any politician with a 69 percent job approval rating is doing pretty well, even among members of the opposite political party.
The task for DeSantis, from now until November, is fairly simple. Communicate as much as possible. Lead the response and recovery. When mistakes are inevitably made, don’t point fingers. Own them. Finally, don’t get caught playing political games. The race is now firmly under DeSantis’s control, and all he has to do is the job we hired him to do.
Crist better get back to working on his tan. It’ll be just as effective in convincing a majority of voters to pull the lever for him.