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Florida's population has skyrocketed. That could make Hurricane Ian more destructive

More people — and more buildings to house them, often in coastal areas — mean that a major hurricane could become more costly and destructive. That's raising concerns as Hurricane Ian approaches.

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Eastbound traffic crowds Interstate 275 as people evacuate before the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday.
Eastbound traffic crowds Interstate 275 as people evacuate before the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. Ricardo Arduengo | AFP via Getty Images

No state in the eastern U.S. has grown faster in recent years than Florida, which has added nearly 3 million residents since 2010.

Now, the state is yet again in the path of a major hurricane, with Hurricane Ian expected to make landfall on Florida's western coast Wednesday. It is now classified as a Category 4 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Tampa, Fort Myers and Sarasota — all among the state's fastest growing metropolitan areas — are within the range of predicted paths, the NHC said. Ian may bring a "life threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and flooding in the Florida peninsula," the hurricane center said in its 5 a.m. ET update.

More people — and more buildings to house them, often in coastal areas — mean that a major hurricane could become more costly and destructive.

The population boom in hurricane-prone Florida is an example of the "expanding bullseye effect," said Stephen Strader, a professor at Villanova University who studies how human environments are vulnerable to natural disasters.

Imagine an archer taking aim at a target, he explained. If the bullseye is very small, the odds of the archer hitting it are low. But as the target grows, the archer's odds improve.

"Instead of an arrow, we have hazard events like hurricanes and tornadoes. Instead of having targets, we are the targets — our cities, our developed areas. And nowhere is that more readily seen than along our coastlines," Strader said.

Florida's population boom

At a time when population growth has slowed to a crawl in most of the U.S., Florida has bucked the trend.

Of the country's major metropolitan areas, only Austin and Raleigh have grown faster than Orlando since 2010. Jacksonville and Tampa are #10 and #12, respectively.

The state's smaller cities are bursting, too. Since 2010, no eastern U.S. city with at least 50,000 residents has grown faster than Fort Myers, the seat of the largest metropolitan area between Tampa and the Everglades, which added nearly 40% more residents in that time. Other areas like Port St. Lucie, Lakeland and the Villages have grown quickly, too.

Most of the state's recent population growth has come from domestic migration. In the year ending July 2021, nearly 221,000 Americans moved to Florida – an average of more than 600 people each day, more than any other state.

People move to Florida for all kinds of reasons: year-round warm weather, comparatively cheap housing, no individual income tax, and large communities of other retirees or immigrants, for example.

"People are able to look past the long-term risk and think about, 'Where do I want to be for the next 10 years of my life?'" Strader said. "But there's also a gambling aspect to that, and unfortunately, a lot of people are still willing to sit at the table."

More population means more damage

Officials have warned that Hurricane Ian could bring a storm surge of 10 feet or higher, along with 6 to 18 inches of rain. The geography of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area makes it especially susceptible to a storm surge, experts said, and heavy rain could cause flooding even in inland areas.

With so many more people living in the areas that could be affected, damage estimates are huge. Hurricanes are already the costliest natural disasters, and billion-dollar storms are happening more frequently than ever.

More than one million homes lay within potential reach of Hurricane Ian, according to one estimate released this week by CoreLogic, a property analytics firm. In the worst case scenario, the estimate found, the reconstruction value could total more than $258 billion.

The actual number is likely to be lower. And ever since 1992's Hurricane Andrew, Florida's building code has required new homes to be more resilient to storms.

Still, a Category 3 storm in such a populated area could cause more than $100 billion in damage, enough to place it among the four most costly storms in U.S. history.

"Hurricanes set the stage for disasters, but the severity and impact is going to be determined by societal elements – things like poverty and exposure, like how many people and how many homes are exposed, like construction quality," Strader said.

Newcomers mean officials must communicate effectively

Newcomers need to learn that hurricanes are "a part of living in Florida," said St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch.

"Folks who come to our state need to understand that when a storm like this comes, and you're in an evac area, you need to have a plan and you need to move when asked to," Welch said in an interview with NPR.

The influx of newcomers means public communication about evacuation and shelters is vitally important, said Eren Erman Ozguven, the director of the Resilient Infrastructure and Disaster Response Center at Florida State University and Florida A&M University.

"There are Floridians that have seen so many hurricanes over the last decades and who have muscle memory, and there are those that moved to Florida in the last decade. Many of them haven't seen a hurricane," he said.

Adding to the challenge is that many of the newcomers are retirees. "They may or may not have a smartphone, and they may still rely on traditional communication such as radio or TV," Ozguven said.

The last major hurricane to hit western Florida was in 2017, when Hurricane Irma thrashed the eastern part of the Fort Myers-Cape Coral metro area; tens of thousands of people have moved to the area since then. In Tampa, no hurricane has hit the city directly in decades.

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Transcript :

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

No state in the eastern U.S. has grown faster in recent years than Florida. There are 3 million more people living there now than there were in 2010, which means more people in buildings than ever are in the path of destructive hurricanes like Ian.

NPR's Becky Sullivan is here to talk more about this. Hi, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey there.

SUMMERS: So we'll get back to the hurricane in a moment. But for now, let's just zoom out. Becky, why has Florida seen this big influx of people in the last decade?

SULLIVAN: You know, people come to Florida for all kinds of reasons. It's warm year round. There are beaches. Housing there is relatively cheap. A big one is there's no individual income tax, which is great if you're retired. And then for retired people and immigrants especially, there are a lot of big communities of people there like them. So all of this means that even as overall U.S. population growth has slowed to a crawl, Florida is still growing. Something like 600 Americans move to Florida every day, according to the Census Bureau, which is way more than any other state.

And so across the country since 2010, only two other big metro areas have grown faster than Orlando. Jacksonville and Tampa are near the top of that list, too. And then smaller cities like Fort Myers and Cape Coral have also grown a ton. And, you know, some of those cities - Fort Myers, Tampa, of course, here on the west coast of Florida - bearing the brunt of Hurricane Ian right now.

SUMMERS: And Becky, more people means that more folks are likely to feel the impact of a natural disaster, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, exactly. It's more likely than ever that a hurricane will strike a major population center in Florida because there's so many more of them and because they're bigger. I talked to a researcher about this. His name is Stephen Strader, a professor at Villanova who studies how humans are vulnerable to natural disasters. He called Florida's population boom an example of the, quote, "expanding bull's-eye effect." Basically, he said, imagine an archer drawing a bow, taking aim at a target. If the target is really small, it's hard to hit. But if it gets bigger and bigger, it gets easier and easier to strike.

STEPHEN STRADER: The difference is, is instead of an arrow, we have hazard events like hurricanes and tornadoes. And then instead of having targets, we are the targets - our cities, our developed areas. And nowhere is that most readily seen as along our coastline.

SULLIVAN: Another way of looking at it is billion-dollar storms used to be very rare. Now, there are 10 or more every year. The most costly storm ever was Katrina in 2005, followed by Harvey in 2017. And depending on how Ian plays out over these next few days, it could be up there.

SUMMERS: Becky, we heard from a climate scientist earlier this week about how warmer temperatures are linked to higher-intensity storms. So walk us through, in the minute we have left, the challenges posed by that plus a growing population.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. You know, experts told me that this is a huge communication challenge for local officials because newcomers to Florida aren't always educated about hurricanes. They might not know the answers to questions like, how sturdy is their house? Do you have impact windows or hurricane shutters? Are you in a flood-prone area? Do you know the evacuation route? Or if you plan to stay, do you have the supplies you need? You know, 'cause experience matters. People who have been through hurricanes before are better prepared for the next one.

But this is a part of Florida that has been relatively lucky in recent years in terms of hurricane frequency. The last sort of big one was in 2017. A lot of people moved to the area since then. So bottom line, you know, essentially every city we've named in this segment is going to feel this hurricane. Even the inland cities like Orlando and Lakeland could see some massive rainfall, which can cause major damage as we know from other storms like Harvey. So if you're in Florida right now, it is very important to listen to local officials to take every measure that you can to be safe through this.

SUMMERS: NPR's Becky Sullivan, thank you.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.