How did a hurricane kill over 100 people in Florida?

Some accuse the US of disregarding human life in its evacuation and relief strategy after over 100 died and thousands were displaced or went missing

October 06, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Fort Myers Beach post-hurricane (Image via: US Coast Guard)

Over 100 people are dead in Florida after Hurricane Ian ripped through the state, making landfall on September 28 as a Category 4 storm. Over 202,000 Florida homes and businesses are still without power. The hurricane caused damage that Biden claimed could rank as “the worst in the nation’s history,”  with economic damage that could cost up to $75 billion—possibly among the five costliest storms in US history.

The death toll combined with the imagery of utter destruction paints a harrowing picture of the fate of Floridians after this storm. Cities such as Fort Myers were leveled, Sanibel Island completely cut off from the mainland, and 3.4 million homes and businesses experienced power outages across several states and a boil water notice was issued in the hardest hit county. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and days after the storm 1,700 people were in shelters and thousands reported missing.

“They didn’t actually do anything to evacuate people”

For many, the response of the US government to natural disasters is structurally inefficient due to the emphasis on individual responsibility. While local and federal governments often issue evacuation orders, the government rarely steps in to help with transport, shelter, and paid time off work. Finding the means to take time off work, arrange alternative housing, and pay for transport takes a huge financial toll on many workers. As a result, only the more affluent can easily evacuate.

The delayed issuing of evacuation orders also has serious consequences. In Florida’s Lee County, the hardest hit by Ian, evacuation orders were issued less than 24 hours before the hurricane was expected to hit. Hurricane expert Bill McNoldy wrote on Twitter of the Lee County evacuation, “That long-delayed evacuation of a high-risk area seemed troubling and suspicious… and it was. The forecasts were good, but the response to them was botched, with deadly consequences.” 

“They gave out this evacuation order, but they didn’t actually do anything to evacuate people,” Bobby Ewing, lifelong Florida resident living in Riverview, who lost power for five days, told Peoples Dispatch. “Because you see them on the news now going into the affected areas and rescuing people. And it’s like, okay, why weren’t you guys doing that before the storm hit? Because if they had been doing it before the storm hit, they could have saved probably hundreds of lives.”

Prison officials refused to evacuate the Lee County jail at all. A Lee County Sheriff’s spokesperson said, “In an abundance of caution, inmates were relocated within the main jail to a higher floor.” The experience of a prisoner at the Lee County jail during the hurricane was recounted in the Miami New Times: toilets overflowing with human waste, dirty and brown tap water, and being deprived of clean bottled water.

Neighboring Cuba was hit by the same Hurricane, albeit as a Category 3 storm. Only three people died in Cuba. Some point to Cuba’s excellent reputation with hurricane preparedness as the cause of the low death toll. The government in Cuba takes full responsibility for evacuation, transporting and sheltering people before a hurricane. Before Ian made landfall, the Cuban state had evacuated 50,000 people to 55 shelters. 

“I would say the biggest difference always for Cuba is that its utmost priority is saving and maintaining human life,” Manolo de los Santos, a leader in the Cuba solidarity movement, told Breakthrough News last year when Hurricane Ida devastated the US. “Whereas in the US, it always seems to be how to take care of private property before anything else.” Ida’s death toll in the US was 87. In Cuba, it was zero.

Floridians abandoned after the storm

After Hurricane Ian, many feel abandoned by the government’s relief efforts. In Lee County’s Pine Island, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office went as far as to threaten volunteers with arrest for attempting to run supplies out to the island. “We usually are welcomed by the local government and law enforcement,” volunteer Jennifer Leatherman-Toby told News-Press. “But in this case, we have been turned away at every corner we’ve come around.”

Some seeking help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are equally vexed. Despite over 200,000 having applied for FEMA assistance, only 99,000 had been approved. According to the Red Cross, FEMA was referring people to the nonprofit for temporary housing assistance, even though the Red Cross’s policy was to refer people back to FEMA. 

On September 30, Congress approved of a measure that allows FEMA to access $19 billion in disaster funds. All 16 of Florida’s Republican members of the House of Representatives opposed the bill. Senator Rick Scott of Florida also opposed, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida missed the vote.

Some of the worst impacts of the hurricane may not be felt for months or even years. Hurricane Ian leveled thousands of homes in a state already starved for affordable housing. According to the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, more than a quarter of total households pay over 30% of their income on their rent or mortgage. These rent burdened workers cannot afford flood insurance—only 18.5% of homes in Florida counties that issued evacuation orders have coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program. 

After Hurricane Katrina, which hit in 2005, displaced over 800,000 people in the New Orleans region in 2005, many Black working class residents simply could not afford to move back into their old neighborhoods. Developers had exploited the disaster to build and rezone, ensuring that the more low income Black population would not return as rents skyrocketed. The Black population shrunk by 94,276 people from 2000 to 2020 according to the US Census.

Cuba offered to send 1,600 medics, field hospitals and 83 tons of medical supplies to the US after Katrina. The George W. Bush administration rejected the offer. At the time, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said, “When it comes to Cuba,” said McClellan, “we have one message for Fidel Castro: He needs to offer the people of Cuba their freedom.” Katrina’s death toll was over 1,800 in the US.

It’s unclear how precisely Hurricane Ian or future hurricanes will impact the people of Florida and across the US. Due to climate change, extreme weather events are only increasing in frequency and intensity.

“Wouldn’t it have been easier if the city, county, or state took responsibility on a regular basis for stocking up and providing free food, water, batteries, as well as free transportation for those who need it, to already-arranged temporary free accommodation?” Florida resident Jeff Bigelow told Peoples Dispatch. “What about guarantees of someone’s job and pay during the hurricane?”

“It is one thing to say let’s put profits before people, but another to make that idea concrete…And along the way there is a path of struggle that could make things better.”