It is not hurricane season, but a particularly notable storm from 2022 is still on our minds. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) released its tropical cyclone report on Hurricane Ian (2022) and a familiar message emerged. Water is still the deadliest aspect of a hurricane. Scholars have driven home this message in recent years, and Ian was no different. Here are some key findings from the report along with some important context.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, “Ian made landfall in southwestern Florida at category 4 intensity (on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale), producing catastrophic storm surge, damaging winds, and historic freshwater flooding across much of central and northern Florida.” The report goes on to note that Ian reached a peak intensity of 140 kt (a category 5 hurricane) just prior to landfall (September 28th, 2022) on the barrier island of Cayo Costa, Florida. The storm was directly or indirectly responsible for over 150 deaths and produced over $112 billion in damage.
How does this compare to previous storms? Hurricane Ian now stands as the costliest hurricane in the state of Florida’s history, it ranks third-costliest in U.S. history, according to NOAA.
The cause of most fatalities was consistent with previous studies that sounded alarms about the danger of water in hurricanes. The NHC report went on to say, “Storm surge was the deadliest hazard, claiming 41 lives, with 36 of the 41 surge fatalities occurring in Lee County, Florida….12 direct fatalities attributed to freshwater flooding in central and eastern Florida, 8 were categorized as marine fatalities….” Four fatalities were related to wind. Many experts, including me, continue to worry that people may downplay the water risk, misinterpret the “cones”, or underestimate compound effects of surge and rainfall. Additionally, the primary risk communication tool is a wind-based scale, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
All of the direct fatalities (storm surge, flooding, rip currents, rough seas, lightning, or wind-related) happened in Florida. Hurricane Ian was also responsible for 90 indirect fatalities (medical emergencies, electrocutions, accidents, downed power lines, carbon monoxide poisoning, etc.) from Florida to Virginia. Hurricanes are typically multi-hazard events, and it is important that the public demolish the mental models that assume danger is simply contained at a point, line, or cone. It is always difficult to write about this material as lives were fundamentally changed. However, it is always my hope that something written will help someone in the next Ian-like storm.