Skip to content

Why was Hurricane Ian so bad? 3 factors created a worse-case scenario

Well before Hurricane Ian’s seething torrent of saltwater began killing people in coastal Lee County, a complicated equation developed by the state was already underway.

Mostly mathematical, it ticks through evacuation machinations that consider storm-surge height, traffic, whether it’s tourist season, and the timing of damaging winds to create a timeline on how best to get people to safety ahead of a storm.

But there’s also human nature and Mother Nature, both unpredictable variables in the calculation.

A week after Category 4 Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County, known for the shell-rich sands of Sanibel Island and kitschy Fort Myers Beach, 50 people in the county are dead from the storm, representing more than half of all Ian-related deaths in Florida. 

The tragic outcome has people questioning both the forecast track of Ian and whether Lee County gave residents enough time to flee Ian’s damaging storm surge, which was forecast to reach 4 to 7 feet when the evacuation was given, but jumped to 5 to 10 an hour later. Three hours later, it was 8 to 12 feet, and by Wednesday morn, up to 18 feet.

The USA Today Network-Florida created a detailed timeline and interviewed multiple weather experts, emergency managers, state and local officials, and people on the ground, to better understand what happened.

The result shows that a confluence of three major factors played a large part in the severity of the disaster.

  • An underestimation of deadly storm surge in Lee County, both in early forecasts and by residents likely unaware of the extreme damage that can be wrought by water.
  • A challenging forecast that at one point painted the bull’s-eye on Tampa and Clearwater, a worst-case scenario for the area of more than 3 million people. The National Hurricane Center warned multiple times that there was low confidence in the track of the storm, although the rapid intensification was accurately predicted from the beginning. 
  • And finally, people, whose past experiences, or a lack of experience with hurricanes, may have influenced their actions.

Added together, the results were grievous.

Hurricane Ian by the numbers: Wind gust of 140 mph recorded in Cape Coral

More:Hurricane Ian underwent an eyewall change, turning a disheveled mess into a monster

Storm surge: It’s not like rainfall flooding; It’s more like ‘a raging river’

“How were thousands of people blindsided by this? If you haven’t seen it before, it’s hard to picture something completely outside your reference,” said Hal Needham, an extreme weather and disaster scientist with the GeoTrek project, who studies storm surge. “When people picture flooding, they are picturing water rising vertically like from flooding rainfall. Storm surge is a raging river.”