Why are more and more Americans moving to Florida, even as hurricanes increase?

There’s nothing in the world that could convince Cape Coral resident Kenneth Lowe to leave — not even a week after Hurricane Ian ravaged the city, having to empty his home of floodwater. “Southwest Florida is my heaven on earth and hurricanes come with South Florida. So you just have to take it,” the 28-year-old told AFP, standing in a street littered with rubble.

“It’s my favorite place, it’s worth it.”

Experts warn that the frequency of supercharged hurricanes and flooding in this climate-sensitive region is only expected to increase over time — but the population of the southeastern United States continues to increase.

The paradox is especially striking in Cape Coral.

According to census data, the population grew by 33 percent to 204,000 people between 2010 and 2021. Founded in 1958, it embodies the Florida dream that many are seeking.

Navigable canals traverse the region and connect to the Caloosahatchee River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This gives many people the opportunity to enjoy a waterfront home, and even room for a small boat.

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But developing Cape Coral first meant draining the swamp it was built on—and destroying the mangroves and coral reefs that acted as natural defenses against waves and storm surges.

The city was pulverized by Ian, which intensified particularly quickly, fueled by warm water and high humidity.

A study in Nature Communications earlier this year found that due to climate change, Atlantic hurricanes dump about 10 percent more water during their rainiest three hours.

Dozens of residents now pile up their belongings in front of their homes on the streets of Cape Coral: beds, cupboards, refrigerators that have become unusable.

“We will just rebuild and hopefully it will be another 100 years before the next big one,” said Tamara Lang, 56.

Lang moved out of Chicago and bought her house in Cape Coral a few months ago — and says she didn’t factor in hurricanes in her decision. But she also has no intention of leaving.

“We love it here,” she said. “This has been our happy place since we got it.”

Fast growth

According to sociologist Mathew Hauer, who studies the effects of climate change on society, people are insufficiently informed about the risks they take.

“If people really understood property flood risk, we would see changes in where people buy homes and where they want to live,” said Hauer, an assistant professor at Florida State University.

Another problem: The flood zone maps prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are outdated, said Gavin Smith, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at North Carolina State University.

“It should be seen as a minimum standard, but they are often used to regulate the where and how of development,” he told AFP.

Census records show a population explosion in the coastal counties of North and South Carolina, as well as Georgia. Florida itself added 2.7 million residents between 2010 and 2020.

“It’s one of the fastest-growing regions in the US,” Hauer said, adding, “I don’t see any signs yet that the trend toward migration to the Sunbelt will reverse.”

Also read: ‘Extremely dangerous’ Hurricane Ian makes landfall in Florida

But according to an article he published in Nature Climate Change, if sea levels rose about 0.9 meters between now and the end of the century, some 4.3 million people in the continental United States would have to relocate. .

Florida coastal residents make up about half of that figure.

‘Immobility paradox’

Retirees from upstates — including seasonal migrants known as snowbirds — have long been drawn to the ‘Sunshine State’.

In addition to their beauty, the state’s coastlines are an essential economic resource and support a huge tourism industry. And once you’re settled, it’s not easy to move.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans would rather rebuild than leave an area hit by severe weather, according to a 2021 Marist Poll.

“This is what we call the immobility paradox,” Hauer said.

A psychological tendency not to give up certainly plays a role in decision-making — but there are also social dimensions such as abandoning loved ones and the hard economic pressures of having to find a new job, he added.

Also read: Hurricane Ian crushes South Carolina after Florida: top updates

Smith notes that ignoring the real risks one faces is a “universal human trait.”

“I don’t think we’re going to leave because we have nowhere to go,” said Irene Giordano, 56, who moved south from Virginia to Cape Coral in 2019.

During Ian, the water rose five feet high in her house.

“I pray this is the last one in my life,” she said.

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