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Everybody Moved to Fort Myers Just Before Hurricane Ian Hit

Welcome to the Sunshine State.
Welcome to the Sunshine State. (Photographer: Handout/Getty Images North America)

Climate change is already creating refugees around the world, a problem that will only worsen as the planet warms. But in the US, much of the migration seems to be into the teeth of climate risk.

Axios published an article this week about how the fastest-growing US metro areas were also at risk of extreme heat because of climate change. Seventh on the list was the southern Florida city of Fort Myers, which has grown 124% in the past 30 years. Its risk of an increase in “very hot” days is relatively low — it’s hot enough there already — but the city’s most urgent climate risks could be far more immediately devastating.

As in, this afternoon.

The monstrous Hurricane Ian, nearly a Category 5 storm, was this morning aimed directly at Fort Myers, part of a metro area with more than three-quarters of a million people. The National Hurricane Center suggests the surrounding coast faces a storm surge of up to 18 feet, which would leave much of Fort Myers and neighboring Cape Coral underwater. The lovely tourist mecca of Sanibel Island, the threshold across which Ian may crash, tops out at about 4 feet above sea level.

My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Frank Wilkinson visited Sanibel in June to assess its ability to withstand rising seas. There he witnessed heroic measures not only to fend off climate change but also to avoid using the term “climate change.”

There have always been monster hurricanes, and South Florida is no stranger to them. But warmer air and seas tend to make them bigger, wetter and slower. This gives them the power to pour catastrophic amounts of water in a hurry. And Ian’s sheer size means few places in Florida will be spared its lashing. The storm caused dozens of tornadoes across the state overnight and will dump up to 2 feet of rain in places far from Fort Myers.

Hurricane Charley followed almost the exact same path as Ian in 2004 and was one of the most destructive storms in the state’s history. Ian’s tab is likely to be three times as high. Despite these obvious and growing hazards, Americans have swarmed into Fort Myers and the rest of Florida in recent years. The state is expected to add one new Orlando’s worth of people each year for the next five years. Miami, which floods even on good days, has become Wall Street South. The Tampa Bay area, which may just miss Ian’s full fury, has become a small financial hub.

The state has obvious charms for new residents. Many come to avoid taxes, snow and Democrats. Now they face the loss of life, limb and property. How much of their emigration was driven by denial of the risks, and how long can such denial withstand the battering of reality?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and writer of the Opinion Today newsletter. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost’s business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal.

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