Maps show how millions of new residents moved into the path of Hurricane Ian

As Steven Strader watches Hurricane Ian as it heads toward Florida’s west coast, he can’t stop thinking about all that lies in its path.

“What if Hurricane Ian happened in 1950? How many people would be affected?” said Strader, a hazard geographer and professor at Villanova University. “Not nearly as many now. Our built environment is expanding and growing.”

The allure of Florida has been constant for generations. But recent decades have brought more transplants — and more development — than ever before. In few places it is more evident than along the patch of coast facing the disastrous effects of Ian, from the Tampa Bay area south to Fort Myers and Naples.

From 1970 to 2020, census records show that the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area grew by a staggering 623 percent, to more than 760,000 people. During the same period, the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area grew 283 percent to approximately 834,000 residents. Tampa St. Petersburg-Clearwater has seen growth of over 187 percent and is now home to more than 3.1 million people.

Cape Coral Fort Myers metro area was there

620% increase in population since 1970

North Port Sarasota – Bradenton + 280%

Tampa Bay – St. Petersburg – Clearwater

+ 190%

Cape Coral Fort Myers metro area 620%

Population increase since 1970

North Port Sarasota – Bradenton + 280%

Tampa Bay – St. Petersburg – Clearwater + 190%

Cape Coral Fort Myers The metro area has seen a 620% increase in population since 1970

Northport – Sarasota – Bradenton + 280% since 1970

Tampa Bay – St. Petersburg – Clearwater + 190% since 1970

Strader said Florida’s population increase in recent decades – along with the construction boom that has accompanied it – has put dramatically more assets and more people in harm’s way.

People want to live near the coasts and live near the beach, but that comes at a price. Unfortunately, we have to bear the brunt of that risk, Strader said. “There are more people than ever before in the path of these storms. In addition, many more people will be hit by a hurricane for the first time.”

Strader and his fellow researchers point to such looming dangers as the “expanding bull’s-eye” effect — the idea that as population and construction in an area increase, it creates an ever greater chance of a weather-related disaster to wreak havoc.

“Then you look at sea level rise and climate change on top of that, and you’re looking at a multi-headed monster,” Strader said.

Cities in Florida are well aware of the risks. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, for example, has imitative What would damage and recovery from a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane look like, hoping to help local leaders plan for scenarios that might unfold.

But even those efforts have done little to stop the state’s frenetic development – an ongoing reality in many coastal areas across the country.

Rob Young, professor of geology at West Carolina University and director of Developed Beach Study Program. This is a national problem. But Florida has been particularly good at putting more things in harm’s way.”

Boston-based Karen Clark, which designs the potential impacts of disasters, has estimated that a direct hit to the Florida coast could cost billions of dollars in losses, in part due to population and housing growth that has defined recent decades. But where the storm eventually comes to shore and how it behaves afterwards are key.

“Hurricanes are like real estate. The three most important things are location, location and location,” Clark said, adding that very slight shifts in the path of this storm could mean losses change by a factor. That’s what we’re watching.”

That’s pretty sure: Almost anywhere Ian could have made it, he’s become home to far more people and many more assets than a generation ago.

“It’s going to affect more people than ever,” Strader said. “We haven’t really done much to check that growth…what we’ve found is that it’s not sustainable.”

Naima Ahmed contributed to this report.

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