Florida's population has skyrocketed. That could make Ian more destructive More people — and more buildings to house them, often in coastal areas — mean that a major hurricane could become more costly and destructive. That's raising concerns as Hurricane Ian approaches.

Florida's population has skyrocketed. That could make Hurricane Ian more destructive

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No state in the eastern U.S. has grown faster in recent years than Florida. There are 3 million more people living there now than there were in 2010, which means more people in buildings than ever are in the path of destructive hurricanes like Ian.

NPR's Becky Sullivan is here to talk more about this. Hi, Becky.


SUMMERS: So we'll get back to the hurricane in a moment. But for now, let's just zoom out. Becky, why has Florida seen this big influx of people in the last decade?

SULLIVAN: You know, people come to Florida for all kinds of reasons. It's warm year round. There are beaches. Housing there is relatively cheap. A big one is there's no individual income tax, which is great if you're retired. And then for retired people and immigrants especially, there are a lot of big communities of people there like them. So all of this means that even as overall U.S. population growth has slowed to a crawl, Florida is still growing. Something like 600 Americans move to Florida every day, according to the Census Bureau, which is way more than any other state.

And so across the country since 2010, only two other big metro areas have grown faster than Orlando. Jacksonville and Tampa are near the top of that list, too. And then smaller cities like Fort Myers and Cape Coral have also grown a ton. And, you know, some of those cities - Fort Myers, Tampa, of course, here on the west coast of Florida - bearing the brunt of Hurricane Ian right now.

SUMMERS: And Becky, more people means that more folks are likely to feel the impact of a natural disaster, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, exactly. It's more likely than ever that a hurricane will strike a major population center in Florida because there's so many more of them and because they're bigger. I talked to a researcher about this. His name is Stephen Strader, a professor at Villanova who studies how humans are vulnerable to natural disasters. He called Florida's population boom an example of the, quote, "expanding bull's-eye effect." Basically, he said, imagine an archer drawing a bow, taking aim at a target. If the target is really small, it's hard to hit. But if it gets bigger and bigger, it gets easier and easier to strike.

STEPHEN STRADER: The difference is, is instead of an arrow, we have hazard events like hurricanes and tornadoes. And then instead of having targets, we are the targets - our cities, our developed areas. And nowhere is that most readily seen as along our coastline.

SULLIVAN: Another way of looking at it is billion-dollar storms used to be very rare. Now, there are 10 or more every year. The most costly storm ever was Katrina in 2005, followed by Harvey in 2017. And depending on how Ian plays out over these next few days, it could be up there.

SUMMERS: Becky, we heard from a climate scientist earlier this week about how warmer temperatures are linked to higher-intensity storms. So walk us through, in the minute we have left, the challenges posed by that plus a growing population.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. You know, experts told me that this is a huge communication challenge for local officials because newcomers to Florida aren't always educated about hurricanes. They might not know the answers to questions like, how sturdy is their house? Do you have impact windows or hurricane shutters? Are you in a flood-prone area? Do you know the evacuation route? Or if you plan to stay, do you have the supplies you need? You know, 'cause experience matters. People who have been through hurricanes before are better prepared for the next one.

But this is a part of Florida that has been relatively lucky in recent years in terms of hurricane frequency. The last sort of big one was in 2017. A lot of people moved to the area since then. So bottom line, you know, essentially every city we've named in this segment is going to feel this hurricane. Even the inland cities like Orlando and Lakeland could see some massive rainfall, which can cause major damage as we know from other storms like Harvey. So if you're in Florida right now, it is very important to listen to local officials to take every measure that you can to be safe through this.

SUMMERS: NPR's Becky Sullivan, thank you.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

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