Hurricane Ian hit southwest Florida just as the state put historic amounts of money into climate resilience. Now officials have to move faster.

Hurricane Ian hit southwest Florida just as the state put historic amounts of money into climate resilience. Now officials have to move faster.
Hurricane Ian flooded neighborhoods like this one in Fort Myers, Florida.Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images
  • Climate preparedness was in its early stages in southwest Florida, where Ian caused the most damage.
  • Millions in government funding have been earmarked for coastal-restoration projects.

In the days after Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and cut off power in Jennifer Hecker's community near Punta Gorda, Florida, she was rushing to arrange a boat for her staff so they could start testing water for pollution.

Diesel slicks, building debris, raw sewage, industrial chemicals — the remnants of the Category 4 hurricane were choking floodwaters and putting public health at risk.

Hecker is the executive director of the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership, one of 28 groups around the country that the Environmental Protection Agency set up to protect areas where freshwater meets the ocean and the surrounding wetlands. Hecker's group conducts research to improve water quality and restore estuaries, which are natural buffers against coastal erosion and flooding.

"This hurricane is going to be a turning point for many communities," she told Insider from an office near Sarasota. "We have to become more resilient, because these storms are becoming more severe and more frequent due to changes in our climate."

The state and the Biden administration combined are spending billions to help communities prepare, but those efforts were just getting underway when Ian made landfall last week. Now those working to build up Florida's natural defenses are calling for more urgent action.


Emerging from one of the costliest disasters in US history, with estimates of up to $75 billion in damage and 100 deaths and counting, how and where to rebuild southwest Florida's coastal towns in this era of climate crisis will be a major question for residents and local and state officials.

The cost to prepare Florida for future storms will be staggering

Lee and Collier counties, where Fort Myers and Naples are located, suffered some of the most catastrophic damage. As the planet warms and sea levels rise, storms like Hurricane Ian — with its massive storm surges and rainfall — are more likely.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state's Republican-controlled legislature created a resiliency fund last year that awards grants to communities for projects to mitigate flooding and sea-level rise — marking the first statewide strategy to protect coastal and inland infrastructure with dedicated spending. The DeSantis administration awarded $404 million through June, and another $500 million was included in the latest state budget.

But the costs for beefing up Florida's defenses are sure to be massive. One estimate put the price of building seawalls in Lee and Collier counties alone at more than $3.5 billion per county. The report didn't factor in other adaptation measures, such as upgrading stormwater and sewer systems or raising roads.

Hecker said preparedness efforts in her region of southwest Florida have been limited so far.


"This is something my organization has prioritized," Hecker said. "We are assisting the 10 counties we serve with conducting comprehensive vulnerability assessments that look at the impacts of climate change, which clearly are already underway."

Hecker said the effort received more than $4.5 million over five years from the EPA under the bipartisan infrastructure law, which President Joe Biden signed last year. The estuary partnership is using the money to hire contractors to help cities and counties conduct the assessments and inform coastal-restoration projects like oyster and mangrove reefs. The state resiliency fund is also providing nearly $600,000 over several years for a specific shoreline project in Punta Gorda.

Nationwide, the infrastructure law authorized more than $50 billion over five years for state, local, and tribal governments to upgrade infrastructure to better withstand droughts, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also received $3 billion for coastal restoration and improving weather-forecasting capabilities.

"These kinds of grant programs want to see that local governments and agencies are coordinating amongst themselves, rather than having a bunch of sharp elbows," said Brad Cornell, a policy director for Audubon Florida, which works to conserve wildlife habitat. "If they're not working together, we can't solve this problem effectively."

Cornell lives a mile from the beach in Naples and said his house was spared by Hurricane Ian, though he lost power for several days.


He is part of the Southwest Florida Regional Resiliency Coalition, aimed at uniting the municipal governments in Lee, Collier, and Charlotte counties with natural-resource managers to study the region's climate vulnerabilities and identify the best ways to mitigate them.

The coalition, hosted by Florida Gulf Coast University, is in its formative stages and only had a few meetings before Ian struck. As of July, Collier and Lee counties "elected to take a hiatus" and "will reconsider their formal relationship sometime in the future," according to meeting minutes, although cities in those counties are participating. The county managers' offices didn't return Insider's request for comment.

"The coalition is way overdue," Cornell said, adding that Hurricane Ian might motivate officials to come to the table.

"We can't keep playing roulette," he said. "I've lived in Florida for 30 years and evacuated three times. This time, the storm surge was devastating."

Storm surges — when wind forces push water onshore — are one of the biggest threats to lives and property during hurricanes and storms.


It's not just the coasts, everywhere in Florida is vulnerable

Millions of people have moved to coastal areas in southwest Florida in recent decades and fueled new property development, leaving the region more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.

Hecker said moving inland isn't a simple or realistic solution. Farther inland in Orlando, homes flooded up to the rooftops due to unprecedented rainfall during Hurricane Ian. Southern Florida is built on top of porous rocks, so rising seas also bubble up from underground, she noted. Many people also don't have the resources to pack up and leave.

"There really isn't a place in Florida that isn't vulnerable," she said. "It's really just the degree of vulnerability. We're the third-most-populous state in the country, so you can't just say everyone needs to move out."

Stronger buildings, road systems, and other infrastructure that can withstand hurricanes will be key, Hecker said. Some of the poorest residents were living in the lowest-lying neighborhoods, so environmental justice needs to be considered when rebuilding as well.

Restoring coastal mangrove forests, wetlands, and reefs that act as natural buffers would also make communities like Naples more protected during storms, Cornell said.


"That's where floodwaters can go rather than pushing it through drainage canals and pumps and all the infrastructure we built to pretend like we're building resilience," he said.