Editorial: Many questions necessary after Hurricane Ian

The Miami Herald

The stories coming out of the most hurricane-devastated areas of Florida’s Southwest coast are heart-rending: Residents leaving on foot from Fort Myers Beach, rolling small suitcases of whatever they could salvage. Pleas for food, water, propane and toilet paper posted on social media. Pine Island, Naples, Matlacha — all hit hard. Sanibel cut off by a severed causeway.

Deaths, mostly from drowning in the storm surge, are continuing to climb past 100. Already, the finger-pointing has started. Whose fault is it that so many people remained in harm’s way when a monster of a storm like Ian hit?

Though it’s still too early to know exactly what happened — we also must remember this was a natural disaster, not a controllable event — there are far-reaching questions that need to be answered, and quickly, so we can learn from this horrific storm for the next time.

For instance, did Lee County violate its own protocols and delay issuing mandatory evacuation orders until it was too late for some? County officials waited until Tuesday, a day later than other coastal communities, to announce evacuation orders.

A local or statewide grand jury would help Floridians understand what, if anything, went wrong, so that it doesn’t happen again. Grand juries have often been impaneled after tragedies such as the Surfside condo collapse and the Parkland shooting to look at systemic issues that need addressing.

Further, did Gov. Ron DeSantis and state emergency managers convey enough of a sense of urgency about evacuating? On the Sunday before the storm hit, the governor offered this assessment: “If there’s an evacuation notice — cops aren’t going to come and drag you out of your house, you’re going to make those decisions. But, when that is issued, that’s a view that there’s a hazard by remaining in that area. So, we just want everybody to know that and hopefully be able to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.”

A day later, he amped up his message. “Our recommendations are to heed those evacuation orders,” he said Sept. 27. “What those evacuation orders are doing is identifying people that live in areas that are vulnerable to major storm surge. And that storm surge can be life-threatening.”

And by the time the storm was close, he was warning of a “major, major storm.”

Personal responsibility must play a role. But which message did people listen to?

It appears much of the damage from Hurricane Ian was caused by flooding. Though many Floridians must carry hurricane insurance, only 30% of homes in Charlotte and Lee counties have flood insurance, the Herald and Tampa Bay Times reported.

There will be some government help for those without insurance to cover this catastrophe, but it’ll be limited. What will happen to people whose insurance won’t come close to covering the loss of their homes?

As the state shifts from shock-and-rescue mode into reconstruction and assessment of its response to this historic storm, we have to learn the terrible lessons of Ian. The best way to do that is an unflinching and transparent examination of exactly what did — and didn’t — happen.