After Ian: What now?

This past week, Hurricane Ian blew through Cuba, then much of Florida, then turned into the Carolinas and crawled to parts north, leaving behind a trail of destruction unlike any we’ve ever seen from a hurricane here in the United States. Statistically speaking, it was the fifth strongest hurricane (150 mph) to make landfall in the US (since we started keeping records), it broke multiple records for storm surge (perhaps up to 12 feet) and rainfall (28.6 inches in 27 hours at New Smyrna Beach). It made landfall as a hurricane four times (Cuba, Cayo Costa, FL, Pirate Harbor, FL, and Pawley’s Island, SC). Post-storm flooding is still ravaging Florida with 14 miles of I-75 is now closed between Punta Gorda and Englewood as the Myakka and Peace Rivers flow over the interstate highway and inland communities completely under water. Wind did a lot of damage, but it’s the power of the water that has been most historic and devastating.

While we suffered only a 19-hour power outage here in central North Carolina, with no property damage (thankfully) as Ian blew through, we watched in anguish as it pummeled our friends and beloved places in southwest Florida. Lee County, FL was home to us for more than thirty years. Many of our dear friends still live there. We have heard from some, but not others. We worried most about those who live on the barrier islands, of course. Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, and Pine Island were all inundated by powerful, fast-rising storm surge. The damage is catastrophic, mind-blowing. But not really.

Barrier islands are “constantly changing deposits of sand that form parallel to the coastline”. They are created by shifting sand, moved about by waves, currents, and storms. The fact is that barrier islands are shifting, moving, dynamic land masses that, without human intervention, can appear and disappear completely over time. As an environmental educator working in southwest Florida, I spent many years teaching people about the shifting nature of barrier islands and the need to protect mangrove forests as hurricane buffers and nurseries to ocean life. Intellectually, I knew that erecting buildings on barrier islands was insane, but it sure was nice to spend a vacation there now and then. Often, in our work meetings and over beers at home, we’d wonder about the time when “the BIG ONE” would come and contemplate the fate of all the humans and human-built structures along the coast when such a huge hurricane came through.

Well, we don’t need to wonder anymore. Now we know. We’ve seen the impacts of “the BIG ONE”. A hurricane that packed not just high winds, heavy rain and tornadoes, but also the deadly, powerful storm surge that Ian brought to bear. Most structures on the islands are either gone or damaged beyond repair. Infrastructure is broken. Bridges and roads are wiped out. People have died. Mother Nature did exactly what she was designed to do to those barrier islands. She made them (and everything on them) move.

The question now is this: Do we try to build back just like before, or do we step back and re-think the true nature of barrier islands and the ultimate costs to live and play there?

In the past, a hurricane would create some damage – some catastrophic, but most repairable. Insurance companies and government assistance would pay out, and rebuilding got done fairly quickly. This time, however, the damage is so cataclysmic and so wide-spread that the costs of payouts, rebuilds, and repairs will no doubt bankrupt companies, individuals, businesses, communities, and governments. Recovery may be possible for the very wealthy, but not for many others. The trauma of going through the hurricane and navigating the aftermath of destruction will take a toll, too. And, as we all know, storms are getting stronger and more frequent. Climate-change arguments aside, everyone on the planet can feel that our weather patterns and storm strength are changing. We can no longer rely on the belief that this is a once-in-a-100 year storm. We could get another one – or three – just like it this year or next. And what then? How do you recover then?

A friend and professor at FGCU, Win Everham (also known as Dr. Disaster), describes the resiliency of our natural systems to disturbances like this. Imagine holding a bowl with a marble in it. You tilt and move that bowl, causing the marble to roll around in a circle inside. It wobbles and rolls higher on the sides of the bowl or lower, depending on how much you tip and turn the bowl. Each tip and turn is a disturbance. The marble responds to it, self-correcting, maintaining some equilibrium, and returning to the bottom of the bowl as your movement slows. Ecosystems (and I’ll argue also human systems) can survive intermittent disturbances and remain intact and functioning (in the bowl). They tend to come back to equilibrium over time. But when there are multiple, frequent, and catastrophic disturbances, that marble will eventually fly right out of the bowl, the system broken. Ecosystems – and human systems – then have a much harder time, perhaps no ability at all, to bounce back. I think we may be at that point with the barrier islands of Lee County (and those of NC’s Outer Banks). Maybe the marble is out of the bowl.

Some friends, whose places are mostly intact, will stay, repair, and hope the infrastructure can be fixed well enough to continue living there. Others, whose places are gone, may choose to go somewhere else. Either way, it will be a difficult, heart-breaking time. Processing the trauma, planning for the future, navigating the recovery, wondering what’s next. Unfettered growth and development, population booms, and reduction of natural habitats have consequences. We are seeing some of those consequences now. I hope for my friends that they will be remain safe and healthy and sane as they come to terms with what has happened, where they are and how they move forward. Know that we are here for you, always.

As all the helpers (and scammers) descend on southwest Florida and other areas most impacted by Hurricane Ian, and the residents and leaders work to figure out how best to move forward, I know the wetlands that have been protected from development, those places I hold most dear – CREW, Corkscrew, Estero Bay Buffer Preserve, Conservation 2020 lands – are doing what they are designed to do – collect, store, and filter the massive amounts of water that soaked the area before, during, and after the storm. For those folks who remain, let’s hope these areas will be seen as more important than ever, providing them with clean drinking water, flood protection, and wildlife habitat.

And for all of us, we need to remember that Mother Nature will always bat last.


    • Thank you, Rita. I know it may be early and painful for folks to read and think about this, but I believe we really have to re-think where we choose to live.

  1. Great post Deb! I have seen Dr Win Everham give his ecosystem/bowl analogy before and it seems that Ian has certainly thrown the marble out of the bowl… at least it feels like that now. Yes, we are resilient but your question is one that is very poignant at this time – should be let barrier islands be just that – barrier islands? Tough questions and even tougher answers.

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