Why are Florida Hurricanes becoming more deadly?

Irma as it made Florida landfall

Editors note: At the time of publishing the AP reported a Florida death toll from Michael of 16. Our own TFS count is 19 based on local sources, but either way the number is certain to rise as rescue efforts continue. Michael could go down as the deadliest or second deadliest Florida Hurricane since 1935, a distinction currently held by last year’s Hurricane Irma. While we hear often about historic Major Hurricanes that hit the state like Betsy, Andrew, Opal, Donna and Dora – those storms combined killed less people in Florida than Irma did. This is a reality that should be unacceptable to all Floridians. 

Florida has been impacted by Hurricanes for the entirety of recorded history. However, in recent years Hurricanes that impact the Sunshine State have become more deadly than ever –  more deadly than the legendary storms that hit the state in the 1960’s, 1990’s and 2000’s. Why?

The answer isn’t simple. I don’t have answers for why the death toll is so high from the last two storms to hit the state. I have some theories below but they might be largely conjecture.

The obvious retort is climate change and coastal over-development. The later has no doubt strained the resources of the state. This state is one where many local elected officials have made new housing and commercial developments the primary and sometimes even the sole economic engine in large portions of peninsular Florida and the western Panhandle.

Recently, we’ve seen this trend come to the Big Bend and Eastern Panhandle also, areas directly affected by record shattering storm Michael. Perhaps providing adequate evacuation routes, something conservatives have touted when trying to build new roads to stimulate development has some merit after all.

The unwillingness to discuss Climate Change openly and intelligently by this Governor and his political allies has furthered the lack of awareness of risk before storms – it does not matter how much Governor Scott works at emergency relief when you consider he spends about 350 days a year minimizing the threat from climate and issues related to coastal developments.

As we discussed, last year following Hurricane Irma, some elected officials including House Speaker Richard Corcoran made interesting proposals post Hurricane Irma, but the state hasn’t acted as quickly or decisively as it could have to enact these ideas. We’ve seen both after Irma and now Michael, politicians shift back into political mode as quickly as it was possible without offending the public. We’ve also seen in the case of Michael, a tragedy in northern part of the state will get ignored by large portions of peninsular Florida, and won’t get treated in the national media the way something happening outside the south would. While that might sound conspiratorial and Trump-voter like, it’s been my observation in the wake of Michael. Thus a vital public safety component might have been missing – mobilization of outside volunteer help and simple awareness.

Hurricane Irma killed more people in Florida than any storm since 1935. When you subtract the 14 deaths in Monroe County who were impacted by a major hurricane, you have almost 80 deaths in the state caused by a storm that was either a minimal Hurricane or Tropical Storm for the bulk of the peninsula. That’s not really an acceptable number.

Here is the death toll by county from Irma:

Broward 21
Monroe 14
Orange 6
Duval 5
Miami-Dade 5
Palm Beach 5
Highlands 4
Hillsborough 4
Marion 3
Polk 3
Collier 2
Hardee 2
Leon 2
Pinellas 2
St Lucie 2
Hendry 1
Lake 1
Lee 1
Liberty 1
Manatee 1
Nassau 1
Okeechobee 1
Pasco 1
Seminole 1
St Johns 1
Volusia 1

Irma actually killed people in more counties than Charlie Crist carried in the 2014 Gubernatorial Election.

Now on to Michael which as we’ve chronicled the last week is a storm with historic pedigree. The rising death toll has no parallel in the history of storms that have hit the northern part of the state – while we’ve had some incredible tragedies in southern Florida, with storms in 1919, 1926, 1928 and 1935, the Panhandle has been a relatively safe place to be even during intense storms of the past, including Eloise  a major hurricane, which in 1975 came ashore in Bay County.  Hurricane Opal which came ashore as a Category 3 in 1995 in a more densely populated area of the western Panhandle only killed one person in the state.

Again, I don’t have answers for why the death toll is so high from the last two storms to hit the state. But my hope is we can have an honest and frank discussion about it because it is not acceptable that loss of property now being replaced by loss of life as the key fear in Florida Hurricanes.

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