Tropical cyclones as powerful as Hurricane Ian threaten to wreak lasting damage on families, crops, coasts and industries long after they roar ashore.
The initial onslaught of wind and water as well as persistent flooding pose significant risks to the lives of people who did not evacuate. And Category 4 threats like Ian can knock out the power grid, flatten homes and leave many roads impassable, isolating people when they need help most. The economic ripples radiate far beyond the path of the storm.
In Ian’s case, many of these effects will be magnified because it struck the heart of Florida, the US’s third most populous state. The storm packed winds of 150 miles (241 kilometers) per hour when it made landfall after 1 p.m. 15 local time Wednesday near Cayo Costa – tied for the fifth strongest hurricane to hit the US mainland. As the United States and the state begin to shift to storm response and then recovery, here are some of the threats to watch.
Wall of water
Hurricanes push water in front of them as they move across the ocean. This is known as “storm surge” which can cause significant coastal destruction. Low-lying geography and the shallow continental shelf of parts of western Florida make it particularly vulnerable. Ian’s expected storm surge of 12 feet (4 meters) to 18 feet could send seawater far inland.
The wave and wind Ian brings ashore will deal a devastating blow to the towns and cities along the coast. But the heavy downpours that are wreaking havoc across Florida and into Georgia, South Carolina and beyond will spread the misery – and the damage. Case in point: Walt Disney World, in the Orlando area of central Florida, issued a shelter-in-place order for hotel guests despite being about 140 miles from where the storm made landfall.
More than 2 feet of rain could fall across central Florida. The National Weather Service is warning that there could be record flooding on rivers throughout the state. Over the next seven days, flooding rains could fall from Florida to southern New Jersey and throughout the Appalachians, according to the US Weather Prediction Center.
The sunshine state could turn dark for days
Category 4 storms cause such damage to the power grid — such as snapping poles — that the National Hurricane Center says power outages can last weeks or even months. Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, asked customers to prepare for “widespread outages” from Ian and warned they could be out for days. The NextEra Energy Inc. utility spent billions of dollars to shore up its system after a rash of hurricanes hit the state more than a decade ago, but now faces the prospect of having to rebuild parts of it. More than 30,000 utility workers from 26 states were mobilized to help restore power once the storm passes, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group. But doing so will require access to equipment and communities that may be cut off by flooding or fallen trees.
Out of gas
Many fuel terminals in Florida are closed, while high winds and flooding make truck deliveries impossible in many areas. Fuel distributors in the state are warning of long waits to supply businesses and homes with diesel for generators. Prolonged disruptions in waterborne transport could risk the state’s supply of fuel – 90% of which comes on barges to 4 ports.
President Joe Biden warned oil companies against raising gas prices in Ian’s wake: “Let me repeat, don’t, don’t, don’t use this as an excuse to raise gas prices in America.”
Breakfast will be even more expensive
Orange juice futures soared as Ian approached the Florida coast. And if crop damage to Florida’s famous crop is as extensive as feared — potentially 90% of its citrus belt, according to Maxar — it will further exacerbate food inflation plaguing consumers.
For growers, the damage can force life-changing decisions. Florida growers are already struggling with a devastating disease called citrus greening that damages fruit and eventually kills trees. A devastating hit from Ian could be the last straw for some growers, said Raymond Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in Sebring, Florida.
Then there is the impact on fertilizer. The fertilizer manufacturer Mosaic Co. evacuated some of its operations in Florida as Hurricane Ian neared landfall – another food inflation threat.
Risk of chemical spillage and dead fish
Florida produces much of America’s phosphate fertilizer in a process that produces a radioactive and toxic byproduct called phosphogypsum, which is stored in stacks — or large mounds. Last year, one of them suffered a catastrophic failure due to heavy rains, causing a red tide that killed about 1,800 pounds (816 kg) of marine life and forced evacuations in nearby towns. Environmental experts fear a potential repeat with Ian, whose path could approach where Mosaic has the bulk of its phosphate facilities. A company spokesman said it has made improvements to its facilities to help prevent such problems, including “a more extensive internal dike system.”
Good luck getting insurance
Florida’s insurance market was already chaotic before Ian. But the storm comes in the wake of six insolvencies among insurers that write homeowner policies in the state. The biggest insurers had withdrawn from the market after previous natural disasters, while smaller companies still active there have struggled to endure losses.
Flood damage is generally not covered in home policies. Instead, they fall under policies administered by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“If this is a major flood, it could leave many homeowners vulnerable,” said Mark Friedlander, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute. “If there were large windstorm losses, other companies could also be pushed toward potential insolvency.”
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