On September 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian, a 500-year storm occurrence, made landfall on Cayo Costa, just west of Fort Myers in Lee County on Florida’s southwest coast. This article summarizes the forecasting challenges of this storm, the evacuation considerations, the impacts of the storm, and most notably, the lessons learned as told by a dozen city and county managers in southwest Florida who gathered together to discuss the calamitous effects of this storm.
Predicting Ian’s Path
With today’s technology, meteorologists can predict where hurricanes are traveling, sometimes 72 hours or more ahead. Ian was not so calculable. Forecasters initially thought it would make landfall in Fort Myers, then forecasted a predicted shift northwesterly toward Tampa. It shifted again, with little warning, back to the Fort Myers area. Hurricane Ian approached in an oblique angle so small changes in the projected path made it difficult to predict. Moreover, Ian underwent rapid intensification, surging 75 miles per hour (mph) to 155 mph in 48 hours, adding to the difficult task of tracking the storm.
Adding to the predictability challenge, Florida’s population has increased by nearly three million people since 2010, with coastal areas seeing some of the largest increase. Many of these people have never experienced a hurricane. For those who have experienced a hurricane, many have become complacent. For example, in 2017, Hurricane Irma was a massive storm, yet like many other hurricanes in recent memory, it was less severe and caused less damage than Ian, thus misleading people to thinking that Hurricane Ian “won’t be all that bad.”
According to Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais, “In 2017, more than two million Floridians evacuated from their homes who ultimately did not need to.” Evacuation decisions are based on several factors—storm surge and wind intensity/duration among the obvious ones—but whether one chooses to leave also depends on their own perceptions and prior experiences with storms.
Impact of the Storm
With sustained winds of 155 mph, a driving storm surge as high as 18 feet, rain in some areas exceeding 24 inches within a 24-hour period, the result was devastating, with more than 100 people dying, 60 percent due to drowning. It was the deadliest hurricane in Florida since the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane and the deadliest on the continental United States since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Ian caused unimaginable property damage as well. In Lee County alone, over 5,000 homes were completely destroyed, another 13,000-plus homes suffered severe damage, and 99 percent of the county’s 447 traffic signs were damaged. In Sarasota County, the emergency medical facility was closed for a week, relying on a temporary mobile facility, and Interstate 75 was closed for extended periods, forcing traffic to be diverted to streets already filled with debris. Sarasota County and its largest city, North Port, were forced to pick up over 10 million cubic yards of yard waste and debris left after the storm. Mysteriously, some of the roadways were further impeded with a coating of a “silky-like ice” that Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza explained eventually “dried up like a desert dust.”
A more recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ranks Ian as the third most costly U.S. hurricane on record with $113 billion in damage and 152 storm-related deaths.1 Over four million customers were left without power.2 Also noteworthy was the expanse of Ian as compared to other storms that hit the area. For example, the eye of Ian spanned 40 miles with a hurricane wind field extending another 100 miles. The eye of Hurricane Charlie (2004) was about five miles with hurricane winds extending another 10 miles. Charlie could have fit within the eye of Ian. In addition, Ian was a slow-moving storm traveling about 9 mph, taking the storm about seven hours just to travel through the city of North Port, resulting in 18-22 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. Hurricane Charlie crossed the entire state in about 10 hours. With Ian, the slow-moving storm also dumped over 20 inches of rain while crossing the state, causing major flooding all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. An example of this impact was the St. John’s River in northeast Florida, which experienced record flooding.
On February 17, 2023, a dozen city and county managers from southwest Florida came together as panelists for “Hurricane Ian: Impacts and Lessons Learned,” a half-day training symposium, at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). The program was co-sponsored by the Florida City and County Management Association (FCCMA). Students from the ICMA Student Chapter at FGCU served as program moderators. Scores of local government professionals and MPA students filled the room to hear the panelists discuss Ian’s impact and the lessons learned from the storm.
The managers did not focus on the routine basics of pre-storm preparations (cleaning storm water inlets, filling vehicle gas tanks, removing pre-storm construction debris, etc.); instead, most of their comments highlighted the significance of communication, employee acknowledgement, pre-positioned contracts, service delivery challenges, and record-keeping compliance. They also reenforced the psychological impacts of a storm and offered counsel on how to respond to the emotions that are part of our human DNA. Following are the key takeaways from this symposium:
Communications Needed at All Levels
• Establishing working relationships throughout the year with other local government managers, school principals, hospital administrators, nonprofits, and other partners is paramount. Identifying a cadence for information sharing (regular conversations via telephone, radio, emails, etc.) is also important, and should include all of these agencies on pre- and post-storm updates during press conferences and community updates.
• Employees should also be included on this regular tempo of communications as they are also residents and are valuable resources for communications to the public. The impact of the hurricane varied throughout southwest Florida, enabling adjacent areas to communicate and coordinate more successfully to assist neighboring devastated areas.
• Educating the public on the relevancy of tracking the storm and its surge beforehand is crucial. Emphasizing the unpredictability of a storm’s path is equally important so that residents will plan evacuation strategies. In addition, providing shelter options for those without a place to go must also be part of this communication.
• Managers need to be prepared for the numerous national media interviews that are sure to follow before and after the storm and plans should be made to use a common spokesperson and message. This is a valuable resource to use to communicate with the public, including those who are living or staying outside the area. If available, also plan to utilize social media platforms to get the message to the public.
• If radio and internet towers are down, plan to utilize satellite AM radios and assign people to distribute colored information flyers (in Spanish and English) to residents in effected areas. Multiple “desktop manuals” should also be available to assist all who need to respond to an event (contact lists, policies, etc.) Establish a communication source outside an impacted area pre-storm to act as a conveyer of messages between agencies and the public. For example, having teleworking staff across the state was instrumental during the post-storm recovery.
Employees Pay, Working Conditions, and Acknowledgement
• Ensure pay plans for all employees are specific and easy to understand. Often, collective bargaining agreements provide an article that covers special pay during a disaster. Understanding the expectations for pay is a requisite to avoid major morale issues.
• Recognize that all employees are essential and acknowledge the importance of scheduling some employee time off to rest, be with their families, and briefly recoup from the psychological effects that responding to a disaster can instill. Many employees will work long hours with little or no sleep for days or weeks. Leaders in Sarasota County’s city of Venice thanked all city employees by giving them a memorabilia coin to “dignify the workers and remember them as heroes” for their efforts.
• Don’t take for granted the importance of being able to feed employees and workers three meals a day during the recovery period. When the power is off, the stores are closed, and employees are working 14-hour days, knowing they can go to a location to receive a free meal is a motivating expression of gratitude. Ensuring that a food canteen (stationary or portable) is arranged satisfies one of the most basic human needs.
Pre-positioned Contracts and Service Delivery Challenges
• Have pre-positioned contracts in place for the top 10 items that your agency knows they will need in a disaster. Trying to negotiate and secure these services after the storm is impossible. In those service contracts involving debris removal, focus on “first push” (clearing for emergency responders), then continue pickups as soon as possible.
• As applicable, plan for how rescue and response teams can reach barrier islands that need to be accessed by bridge. The bridge to Sanibel Island was damaged, and money was needed to pay for alternative access points, such as floating docks. Fortunately, the Coast Guard air support was available and vital to rescuing people. With limited boats available, pontoon boats were used for shuttling people.
• Recognize the significance of not being able to evacuate the elderly in high rises after the storm. Elevators won’t be operational. Generators don’t work when they are plugged into buildings that have been flooded. Most older residents are unable to traverse many flights of steps to get out of a building.
• A newer issue we encountered involved numerous homes catching fire due to golf carts and electric automobiles not being unplugged during the storm, causing homes to burn down when the power returned. Ensure that you communicate this risk to residents.
• Ensuring an up-and-running Emergency Operation Center (EOC) is critical and all phases and location needs should be established ahead of time. Being overly prepared with table-top plans with emergency personnel, as much as possible, is also encouraged. In addition, understand that some people may be in shelters for weeks, and this takes a psychological toll on those staying and working there. Shelters must be able to accept pets.
• Several different meeting points need to be determined for residents and government workers to use during natural disasters. According to Fort Myers Beach officials, they were ill prepared with an alternative when the town hall was lost in the storm.
• Managing expectations, while recognizing the psychological considerations for getting things back to normal, is essential. For example, opening a beach access point, allowing beach events such as weddings, or opening a pier are all important, but not as high a priority as opening hospitals and fire stations.
• Many dwellings and businesses that have survived for decades were not up to newer building codes and did not survive this storm. In Charlotte County, an area on the northern end of the storm, administrators credited rebuilding infrastructure and updating land-use ordinances that were put in place since Hurricane Charlie as playing a major role in damage mitigation. It’s not safe to keep “kicking the can down the road” with infrastructure until an event like this occurs and infrastructure fails.
Record Keeping Mandates
• Following a storm, record keeping and accessibility to the records is critically important to present paperwork needed for FEMA and other sources of funding and assistance.
• Medical-dependent registrations and transporting and sheltering process records will assist in responding to those most vulnerable. After Irma (2017), Florida placed Environmental Power Plan (EPP) requirements on all licensed nursing homes and rest homes. As a result, not one of the 72 nursing homes in Collier County experienced heat stress due to lack of power.
President Abe Lincoln purportedly said, “If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I would spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.” Preparing for a major hurricane has a lot more variables to consider than cutting down a tree, but the principle is the same—preparation. The city and county managers who made time to discuss what they learned from this storm all focused on the significance of preparation and communication as universal foundations for local governments’ response to a major storm event. Some argue that Hurricane Ian was the “perfect storm” due to its unpredictable path, massive size, slow-moving speed with extreme wind speeds, and lots and lots of rain. The managers who assessed this storm recognize one other very important attribute—adaptability—and the recognition that preparing for the unexpected will continue to be a salient part of their planning.
1 WFSU Public Media citing a report from NOAA, January 1, 2023.
2 NOAA report, U.S. Department of Commerce, November 29, 2022.
New, Reduced Membership Dues
A new, reduced dues rate is available for CAOs/ACAOs, along with additional discounts for those in smaller communities, has been implemented. Learn more and be sure to join or renew today!