Is Hurricane Ian a Turning Point?

Although it will take time to sort through the wreckage of Hurricane Ian, it already seems clear it will mark a turning point in how we prepare for such mammoth storms.

Truck in hurricane

Although it will take weeks and months to sort through the wreckage of Hurricane Ian, as the insurance industry helps the victims recover as best we can, one thing already seems clear, and it should finally mark a turning point in how we prepare for such mammoth storms. 

Ian makes it increasingly hard to deny that climate change is dangerous in the here and now. People will still argue about just how severe the effects will be in 2035 or 2050 or 2100 and will debate how much we should spend now to avoid those problems. But the climate-related acceleration of Ian into such a massive hurricane will force more people, even now, to confront hard choices about where they live, because more such behemoths are surely coming. And insurers will need to adapt.

The National Hurricane Center defines any storm whose winds increase by 35mph in 24 hours as a rapidly intensifying storm, and Hurricane Ian's winds accelerated 67% in 22 hours. (This article doesn't specify just how much that percentage meant in miles per hour, but, given that Hurricane Ian's winds hit 150mph right before landfall, the increase was somewhere around 60mph in less than a day.) 

The conditions that led up to that increase -- which were so noticeable forecasters called attention to them days ahead of time -- all relate to climate. In particular, the temperature of the water that Ian was crossing right before landfall was 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal, and that extra heat fed the intensity of the storm.

More generally, higher temperatures now reach deeper into the water, so hurricanes may no longer lose power as they suck up water from below the surface, where it used to be markedly cooler. Hotter air can hold more moisture, so hurricanes now can carry and then dump far more rain -- and water, not wind, causes most of the destruction in a hurricane. For good measure, larger hurricanes such as Ian are generally moving more slowly than in the past, so storms can hover and dump unimaginable amounts of rain -- as Hurricane Harvey did in 2017, unloading more than 60 inches of rain in some areas around Houston. 

What comes next will surely be chaos, even more than in the aftermath of most hurricanes -- and, despite all the attention to Florida, let's spare a thought for those in South Carolina who were hit as Hurricane Ian made landfall a second time, and for those in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Fiona, having never fully recovered from Hurricane Maria five years ago. 

The reason for the chaos is that Florida's homeowners market is dysfunctional. It accounted for 76% of all homeowners insurance lawsuits in the U.S. in 2021. Partly as a result, rates are about twice as high as the national average. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost insurance, either because the carriers won't write policies for them or because they can't afford the rates. 

But I'm hoping that we've passed a tipping point on climate denial and that some order will emerge from the chaos. 

Maybe some people will decide to take their insurance settlements and not rebuild in an area that is vulnerable to increasingly violent storms. Maybe many others will focus on increasing resilience to storms as they rebuild. 

Maybe many people, both in Florida and around the world, will have a "there but for the grace of God go I" moment and think about how they can fortify their homes before they face a disaster related to climate change. 

Maybe carriers and agents and brokers can offer guidance that steers clients away from risks and toward resilience.

Maybe the federal government, state governments and insurers can have a much-needed dialogue about who should bear the risk of catastrophes related to climate change -- based on the notion that we all obviously want to help the victims but that we also want to steer people toward safety and relieve some of the burdens of recovery, when some people, insurers or governments have to shell out an awful lot of money.

Or maybe not, of course.

Often, it seems, we have to undergo many "tipping points" before we finally get to the one that truly changes behaviors. But I, for one, hope Hurricane Ian can change a lot of minds.