MEGAN HARDING escaped the worst of Florida’s devastating Hurricane Ian, but considers the lasting impact on local residents and the US state’s legendary tourist industry
It has now been over a month since the category four Hurricane Ian hit Florida, after passing through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. But the lasting consequences will impact residents for years to come. The tropical storm hit the southwest coast of Florida at 3:05pm on Wednesday 28th September bringing winds of up to 150mph to communities across west and central Florida. Unnervingly, just under two weeks before the hurricane I returned from a family trip to Orlando after visiting the theme parks and the Lake Buena Vista area. This meant that, when the news of the storm surfaced, I immediately thought of the residents as well as the tourists, who would have travelled to Orlando for a magical holiday to be caught in a horrific natural disaster thousands of miles from home.
Disney damage dilemmas
Walt Disney World and the surrounding Orange County suffered from high winds, power outages, as well as damage to buildings and vegetation. Compared to counties in the southwest, central Florida saw less destruction and desolation to the extent that Disney managed to re-open its theme parks just two days after the hurricane. The Walt Disney World company was criticised for opening its gates again so soon after storm, specifically for requiring employees who may have had no power at home to return to work. Cynics might suggest the motives of Disney were solely financial? However, from my recent experience in the parks, the focus was always on customer experience, and many guests (who would have spent a large amount of money on the holiday of a lifetime) will have been eager to access the theme parks again once it was safe.
Visiting Florida in hurricane season - running from June to November - is always risky, as the weather is so unpredictable. Constantly checking the weather forecast becomes a ritual of your holiday and when visiting in September, we grew accustomed to the guarantee that it would torrentially rain for a few hours in the afternoon, before most likely returning to humid sunshine in the evening. It may be that an abiding impact of Hurricane Ian is the significant reduction of tourism in the storm season, affecting the profits acquired by theme parks in Orlando. September is already one of the quietest months in terms of crowd levels in the parks. And with the higher costs of travel insurance in this period, will more guests choose to visit in the winter months when optimal weather is guaranteed?
The lasting effects in Orlando seem to be minimal for locals and tourists, yet the same cannot be said for residents in the southwest counties of Florida. Communities here such as Sanibel Island, Fort Myers, Naples, Collier County and Manatee County are among those in which the hurricane caused unconceivable damage. In Collier County, schools re-opened on the 6th of October, though many students did not return because their family had been forced to move as their houses were uninhabitable. In the Florida city of Naples, the devastation caused by the hurricane not only affected children forced to leave the familiarity of their hometown, but impacted whole families as the damage to properties increased the difficulty of finding affordable rental houses in Naples. Airbnb are one company offering five million dollars to Florida’s Disaster Relief Fund to provide “free, temporary housing” across the state. But have other large companies like Walt Disney Company done enough to assist in the aftermath support for locals?
The human and animal cost
Not only do families have to deal with the unimaginable upheaval of their lives, but many are also trying to cope with the grief of losing loved ones because of the hurricane. On 6 October, CNN reported (based on local and state agencies) that at least 125 people had died. It is going to take many years for Florida to recover financially, with 83,000 residents applying for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and assistance being difficult for everyone to access immediately. But perhaps the lasting economic effects seem trivial when 125 families have lost loved ones. Another lasting effect of the hurricane is the displacement of pets across the southwest counties. In Manatee, the Manatee County Animal Welfare agency reported that on average twenty pets a day were being brought in, which is double the normal volume.
Climate change certainty
This type of natural catastrophe raises the extremely unsettling issue of climate change highlighting the uncertainty that lies in the years to come. President Joe Biden publicly addressed this concern stating, “disasters like Hurricane Ian end the debate on whether or not there is climate change”, but only time will tell if the storm leads to the federal government in the USA addressing climate change with more urgency.
The aftermath of Hurricane Ian will continue to impact the lives of many people, from families to large companies. To a certain extent, the emergency services were prepared for hurricane devastation, but the long-term consequences of Hurricane Ian have stretched them to the limit.
Written by Megan Harding