Commentary

Hurricane Ian proves politicians are trying to fool us if they’re tackling climate change

And we’ll keep spending more trying to keep up with it

September 29, 2022 7:00 am

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses reporters at Florida’s Emergency Operations Center on Sept. 25, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

Note: This commentary has been updated. Craig Pittman filed this column early Wednesday afternoon, before Ian made landfall.

By the time you read this, we will know where Hurricane Ian made landfall, and how much destruction it caused.

We’ll know how high its winds were and how much storm surge it pushed ashore. We will begin to count the number of human lives lost and the dollar amount of the damage.

But I wonder how many of us will think about our elected leaders’ role in causing this to happen. One of them has even been running on what I can only call a pro-hurricane platform.

Longtime Floridians often make light of storms like this one as a way to brighten the mood while putting up plywood. Someone on the Facebook group “Florida Memes” joked that there was a new drinking game: You take a slug every time the latest weather report uses the term “rapid intensification.”

If you played that game with Ian, you got sozzled pretty swiftly.

Megan Thee Stallion. Credit: Ashley Graham via Wikimedia Commons

Ian made the transition from tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane on Monday. By Tuesday morning it had slammed into Cuba as a Category 3. As I write this it’s a monster Category 4 ahead of making landfall Wednesday afternoon. Its winds are just shy of ranking as Category 5. That’s as fast a climb to the top of the charts as any Megan Thee Stallion single.

Hurricane forecasters have a set of terms that we Floridians learn from an early age and newcomers have to pick up on the fly. I’ve known for years that “spaghetti models” do not pose for the cover of Italian Vogue, “the cone of uncertainty” is not a horcrux sought by Harry Potter, and “Saffir-Simpson” is not Homer’s brother.

Rapid intensification” is a newer term, one invented to explain a more recent phenomenon. Here’s what it means: The storm’s wind speed ratchets up by 35 mph in just 24 hours or less, making it hard for meteorologists to predict how bad it will be when it finally hits.

A good example: Hurricane Michael, which clobbered the Panhandle just four years ago. In less than 48 hours, Michael jumped from a Category 1 to a rip-roaring Category 4 and kept growing stronger still.

2018 Hurricane Michael. Credit: YouTube.

Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach with winds clocking in at 161 mph and a peak storm surge of 9 to 14 feet. It became the first Category 5 to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew rampaged across South Florida in 1992.

What causes “rapid intensification”? Warmer-than-usual water in the Gulf of Mexico. The warmer the gulf gets, the stronger the hurricanes.

In other words, climate change. You know — that term that our governor seems afraid to mention.

As our hurricanes grow stronger, our storm surges get higher because of sea level rise and our rainfall grows heavier because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, but don’t expect him to do diddly about it.

In fact, from the way he’s acting, I can only conclude he’s in favor of all those things.

‘Florida’s golf course’

I thought the one good thing I could say about Hurricane Ian is that it made the politicians hit the pause button on their campaign ads. I was wrong. The ads kept popping up in between the latest updates from the Mega-Dyno-Super-Ultra-Kick-Butt- Storm-Tracker Center.

Plus, of course, we had to listen to frequent live announcements from Gov. Ron DeSantis, some of them unintentionally hilarious. For instance, this gem: “We know that this is going to have major impacts on Florida’s golf course, uh, Gulf Coast.”

Guess we know what he was really concerned about.

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Still, it was nice to see our famously skeptical governor suddenly trusting what government scientists told him. I have to admit I kept holding my breath, waiting for him to start yelling at meteorologists the way he did those Tampa teens who dared to wear masks: “This is ridiculous! We have to stop this hurricane theater! You don’t have to evacuate if you don’t want to, just like you don’t have to get a booster shot!”

I regret to report that our Republican Golfer-in-Chief and his Democratic rival, ex-Gov. Charlie Crist, aka the Tan Fan Man, are scheduled to have only one debate. That means the moderators have to make their questions count.

If I ran that debate, my first question to DeSantis would be: “Climate change is making hurricanes worse for Florida. What are you doing to stop that?”

Then I’d listen to him flail around, desperately trying to change the subject.

He’d probably start by throwing out dollar figures. He likes to mention how many millions he’s spending on “resilience.” That’s a code word used by politicians who want to fool the voters into thinking they’re on top of climate change when they’re not.

It means: “I am throwing a lot of taxpayer cash at well-connected contractors to pay them to armor the coastline to save waterfront property owners from getting flooded. And that’s all I am doing.”

DeSantis may even have trouble with that one talking point. Just last year, during a visit to Oldsmar, the governor couldn’t keep his numbers straight. He mentioned spending $270 million for 76 projects and then $276 million for 70 projects.

I’m glad that DeSantis is at least doing this much to deal with sea level rise. It’s certainly more than Rick “I’m Wearing My Navy Hat Just Like I Did On That Yacht” Scott did in eight years as governor.

But spending money on “resilience” has a downside. It makes the taxpayers foot the bill for all the developers building more and more homes in low-lying, flood-prone areas. The governor has been inclined, in his four years, to give developers whatever they want and here’s one more consequence of that.

The careless practice of building where the water will go puts the buyers’ lives and property at risk when a storm like Ian comes along. It not only throws a deadly storm surge up along the coast, it also dumps a ton of rain on the interior, causing flooding there too. By then, of course, the developers have made their money and moved on.

Rather than steering people away from floodplains, Florida has permitted more and more building there as people have poured into the state.

“Nearly a quarter of Tampa’s residents live in the floodplain, according to researchers at the University of South Florida. By 2035, more than 41 percent will live there,” Politico reported this week in a story on potential Ian flooding.

A couple of years ago, when the First Street Foundation reviewed the flood risk for 142 million homes across the U.S., it declared that the No. 1 state facing a flooding risk is Florida.

The No. 1 city in the nation facing a serious flood risk, the foundation found, is one of the cities where Ian may make landfall: Cape Coral.

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict a disaster would result from a hurricane hitting anywhere near Cape Coral. Yet in that metro area “the population climbed from 764,679 in July 2020 to 787,976 in July 2021. The 3 percent increase ranks as the ninth highest among all U.S. metro areas,” according to The Center Square.

I sincerely hope everyone there evacuated in time and that there will be something left when they come back. And I hope that everyone sees that climate change is a serious problem that needs to be fixed, not something to be ignored as it gets worse.

Pot-smoking and mixed bathing

But don’t expect DeSantis to do anything that might wean the state off fossil fuels or reduce carbon emissions. Those things don’t meet his ideological test.

I’m not talking about the ideological test that points to Miami Beach drag shows as a bigger threat to the state than a wobbly property insurance industry. I mean that, as garbled as his speeches have been, one thing he has been clear about is that he refuses to do any “left-wing stuff” to stop climate change.

climate heat air
Excessive heat fueled by climate change contributes to drought, wildfires, crop failures, and impaired human health. Getty Images

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff,” DeSantis told that Oldsmar crowd last year.

Then, in an attempt to explain what he meant, DeSantis exposed just how confused his thinking is on this issue. It’s almost as bad as confusing “golf course” and “Gulf Coast.”

“Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology,” he said, as if climate science is some sort of insidious gateway to pot-smoking and mixed bathing. “They say they support our coastline, or they say they support, you know, some, you know, difference, our water, environment. And maybe they do, but they’re also trying to do a lot of other things.”

(You’d think a guy with degrees from Yale and Harvard Law would be able to speak plain English, wouldn’t you? There may be Venezuelan refugees in Texas who speak in clearer sentences than our Ivy League-educated governor.)

Struggling to hack his way out of this thicket of words, DeSantis then claimed Floridians need “affordable energy” more than they need to save themselves from more intense hurricanes with higher storm surges.

What we really need, more than cheap gasoline, is a governor brave enough to not only to say the words “climate change,” but to admit that it’s a threat to our state. Then he can advance a plan for Florida’s role in dealing with it.

Fix a flat

In one press conference prior to Ian’s landfall, DeSantis warned residents to beware of Ian’s “catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge.”

Bigger storm surges, like the one from Ian, are one of the signs that sea level rise is real, even though the governor’s golfing mentor — a doctor of thinkology if ever there was one — claims that it’s a Chinese hoax.

Sunny-day flooding caused by higher sea level along Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Figure sea level has risen about a foot in the past century, the state climatologist, David Zierden, told me a couple of years ago. Now add that foot on top of a five-foot storm surge and you’ve got a six-footer. That wave goes much farther inland in our extremely flat state than it would elsewhere.

By the end of this century, he said, the sea level will be a full foot higher than it is now.

That’s the other problem with DeSantis’ resilience-but-nothing-else policy. You can’t “fix” it once and be done with it. All those millions he’s spending on raising roads and installing pumps will soon prove inadequate. We’ll have to do it all over again as the sea level rises higher.

It’s like driving a car with a defective tire that keeps leaking. You can keep pumping it up and letting it leak out. Or you can get a new tire. Which one makes more sense?

Unfortunately, Florida is saddled with a host of leaders who prefer leaky tires to actual solutions. They huff and puff worse than any hurricane, but all they do is make noise.

As the Miami Herald reported in May, “The last time Florida’s Legislature addressed the root cause of climate change — greenhouse gas emissions — it was in a law that effectively blocked cities from cutting emissions.”

They didn’t even write that legislation they passed. According to the Herald, it was “written by the lawyers for the utility companies.”

They would rather stick with fossil fuels — which are driving the cost of your electricity higher — than let anyone make a change to save the planet.

Again, that’s not the leadership we need here in Florida. We need someone who can stand up to the utilities and stand up for consumers, not someone who takes their campaign contributions and helps them get a $5 billion rate increase.

Blowing away the storms

Hurricanes have been a part of Florida life for a long, long time. One chased away Pensacola’s first Spanish colonists in 1559, and they’ve been trying to chase the rest of us away ever since. Hurricane season will continue to be the one season that we celebrate when it’s over, not while it’s happening.

The world will keep getting warmer, including the water that feeds these monster storms. The sea level will keep getting higher and higher. And we’ll keep spending more millions trying to keep up with it.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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