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Why Florida is more prone to hurricanes

Florida is the most hurricane-ravaged state in the country due to its unique geography

A canal is seen near downtown Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 10, 2017, amid Hurricane Irma’s wind and rain. (Andrew Innerarity for The Washington Post)

Floridians are finding themselves in a familiar situation this week: preparing for a hurricane.

Hurricane Ian is expected to barrel into the western coast of Florida by Wednesday, bringing damaging winds and surging floodwaters. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared a state of emergency for all 67 counties in Florida on Sunday, while several counties are under mandatory evacuations. Tropical storm conditions could impact southern Florida as early as Tuesday.

“It’s a big storm,” DeSantis said during a news conference Sunday. “Expect heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surge and even isolated tornadoes.” The governor also encouraged residents to stock up on food, water, batteries, medicine and fuel.

Ian forecast: Major hurricane landfall expected along Florida’s west coast

This could be the 121st hurricane to hit the state since 1851 — making Florida the most hurricane-ravaged state in the country. About one-third of those storms hit as Category 3 or above.

Here’s a look at what makes the state so vulnerable and at some of the most memorable hurricanes in Florida history.

In the middle of traffic

More than 41 percent of hurricanes in the United States have made some sort of landfall in Florida.

“Our hurricane risk is geographically determined,” said Richard Olson, the director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University in Miami.

Florida has the second-longest coastline — 1,350 miles — among states, behind Alaska. The state juts into warm, tropical waters — directly into the paths of hurricanes trekking across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Activity for Florida tends to pick up in September and October, when storms are more likely to form in the western Caribbean, the Bay of Campeche off the Yucatán Peninsula and the southern Gulf of Mexico, as waters warm later in the season.

“Given that Florida is the peninsula that juts out into that zone, it’s not surprising that we get hit regularly,” Olson said.

Florida’s southeast coast and panhandle are particularly susceptible to landfalling hurricanes. Ian is aimed at the less-struck western coast of Florida, near Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay area has not been hit by a major storm in more than a century.

Low-lying and flood-prone, Tampa Bay area braces for first major storm in a century

Florida also suffers some of the highest financial damage from storms, partly because of the frequency of hurricanes but also because of rapid coastal development. Approximately 15 million Florida residents, or 76 percent of the population, live in coastal portions of the state.

“I’m always pretty confident in Florida that the systems and the public will be able to handle Category 1 and Category 2 [hurricanes], but once you’re looking at a coastal impact of a Category 3 or 4, or, Lord forbid, a Category 5, I do worry that physically and psychologically, we’re not fully prepared for those,” Olson added.

History of hurricanes

Florida has experienced intense hurricanes since record-keeping began more than a 170 years ago. Many early hurricanes still hold the title for some of the most intense and powerful.

The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 unleashed one of the most brutal attacks in the state as it made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 5 storm in September, killing more than 400 people. It remains one of the strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricanes, with sustained winds at 185 mph, tying with Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

100 years of hurricanes hitting and missing Florida, visualized

Several Category 3 and 4 hurricanes hit the state over the decades after the Labor Day storm, but catastrophic destruction came in 1992. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Elliott Key, Fla., with peak sustained winds of 165 mph. Andrew caused 65 deaths and $27 billion of damage, making it the most expensive hurricane in the country’s history until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Andrew was the second-strongest landfalling cyclone in the state, trailing the Labor Day Hurricane.

What would happen if Category 5 Hurricane Andrew hit Florida today

While these two hurricanes remain the strongest in state history, many people have the freshest memory of Hurricane Michael, from October 2018. Michael — the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Florida since Andrew — brought winds of 160 mph and obliterated miles of coastline. The hurricane, the third-strongest in state records, killed 49 people and caused more than $25 billion of damage.

While the Category 5 storms may be the most memorable, several other hurricanes have made historic impacts along the Florida coastline. Since 2000, Florida has experienced six noteworthy Category 3 and 4 hurricanes.

One of the most noteworthy was Hurricane Irma. In September 2017, Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 mph. Irma crashed into Florida with a deadly mixture of embedded tornadoes, strong gusts and heavy rain. The storm claimed 77 lives in the state, with damage totaling over $77 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

More than 6 million South Floridians fled a storm surge of up to eight feet when they evacuated. The surge is the rise in ocean water above normally dry land and can be the most destructive part of a hurricane. Hurricane Irma was the first major hurricane to rock Florida since Category 3 Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Hurricane Ian could be the first significant hurricane in Florida since Michael in 2018, although intense storms have lashed other parts of the Atlantic basin. The past two hurricane seasons, which turned out to be some of the most active on record, surprisingly left Florida unscathed despite multiple nearby storms.

Although some years bring more hurricanes than others, research does not indicate a clear long-term trend in the number of tropical storms. Whether a hurricane makes landfall in Florida depends on a variety of factors — from the sea surface to high in the atmosphere and, to a certain extent, luck.

“Storms like Ida and Dorian could have ended up making landfall in Florida if the steering pattern at the time had been just slightly different,” said Brian McNoldy, who works in cyclone research at the University of Miami and is a hurricane expert with the Capital Weather Gang. “I’d say a lot of it comes down to luck. … It’s not for a lack of opportunities.”

While storm frequency has not trended upward, research shows hurricanes in the Atlantic have become more intense, partly driven by higher sea surface temperatures linked to human-caused climate change. Warm ocean waters, which can fuel hurricanes, combine with Florida’s extensive coastline to make the state a hotbed for storm disasters.

Global sea surface temperatures have increased an average of over 1.1 degrees in the past century. Experts from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean could increase by 3.6 degrees in the next 100 years.

Research shows that hurricane hazards and occurrences will increase across the Florida Panhandle and the western Gulf Coast by 2030, largely driven by increases in sea surface temperature. The research shows the greatest increase will be in Category 4 hurricanes in the region.

What is storm surge? What causes it during hurricanes?

The effects of the storms are also expected to increase with rising sea levels. With elevated coastal waters, storm surges can carry water farther inland and cause more dangerous and widespread flooding. Storm surges often are the most destructive part of a hurricane, even the effect of the wind.

In the next three decades, from 2020 to 2050, the sea level is projected to rise 14 to 18 inches on the Gulf Coast, according to a report by NOAA.