The rains may have stopped, but Hurricane Ian is far from done with Central Florida

Treading water

Like Eola's swans, this week Orlando might appear serene, but most of us are paddling furiously beneath the surface.
Like Eola's swans, this week Orlando might appear serene, but most of us are paddling furiously beneath the surface. Photo by Matt Keller Lehman

If you were brainstorming a punchy opening image for a post-apocalyptic film centered in Orlando, the sight of a flooded-out Lake Eola Park would surely be a contender.

As we wrote on Monday night, notifications from the city of Orlando were piling in, warning that excessive water usage would strain an already overtaxed sewer system. This after a breach over the weekend that resulted in sewage spilling out into lakes and streets in three different parts of Orlando. Elsewhere in Osceola County, voluntary evacuations are in effect in parts of the county as water levels continue to rise. This is not a postmortem for Hurricane Ian. Just because the rain has stopped, it doesn't mean the storm is done with Central Florida yet.

The aforementioned Ian made landfall in Florida on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 28, as a Category 4 storm, its constantly shifting track finally settling on Southwest Florida, tearing through Fort Myers and Cape Coral as it made its way toward Central Florida. Orlando and surrounding counties soon enough felt the effects of Ian. The storm lingered over our area overnight and into the next day, dumping between 14 and 20 inches of rain and lashing Orlando with high winds before finally moving northward on Thursday.

Though Ian had "weakened" considerably (to a tropical storm) by the time it reached us, the flooding and damage it wrought was jaw-dropping. Lake Eola Park flooded out, with swans happily gliding along submerged pathways where they could previously only waddle. Lake Davis and Lake Cherokee nearly became one superlake. Interstate ramps along I-4 turned into rivers. The theme parks and the airport were all closed, even as parts of Universal Orlando Resort were under water. Near UCF, residents of nearby apartment buildings were filmed using air mattresses as rafts, trying to salvage their possessions from the flood. Historic flooding in Osceola County and Seminole County happened, and it's not abating. Water is still rising at the Downtown Sanford Riverwalk.

And nearly a week later, we're still in the thick of it. Large sections of Central Florida are dealing with floodwaters. Many Orlandoans still don't have power. Parts of major roads are still closed. Driving through neighborhoods, downed trees and debris are everywhere you look.

And even with all of this, Central Florida got off relatively easy compared to Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, parts of which were utterly devastated by the storm. Early estimates are that Hurricane Ian caused roughly $40 billion worth of damage. Current loss of life due to Ian has surpassed 100, with thousands still missing. These numbers will no doubt rise.

The state is most likely headed for a property insurance crisis. More than 222,000 insurance claims had been filed in the state due to the storm thus far, with estimated insured losses of $1.61 billion. State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier last week issued an emergency order temporarily preventing property insurers from dropping customers in the aftermath of Ian. The order suspended cancellations of policies for at least two months. This won't be enough.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who, as a congressman, voted against Hurricane Sandy relief funds (saying "This 'put it on the credit card mentality' is part of the reason we find ourselves nearly $17 trillion in debt") — petitioned President Biden for federal aid. Biden quickly declared a major disaster for the state. Congress duly passed a bill that included an emergency $18.8 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, funds that would largely go to Florida recovery efforts. Every single Florida Republican in the House of Representatives voted against it, as did Rick Scott and Marco Rubio when it reached the Senate.

The bill passed anyway, and now residents in numerous counties in Florida — including Orange, Osceola and Seminole — are eligible for FEMA relief funds.

DeSantis, currently under fire for a "botched" evacuation of Lee County, early on called Ian "basically a 500-year flood event." Like many things he says, this will inevitably prove to be false. Hurricane Ian and its aftermath are climate change writ large, sobering foretastes of what we in Florida can expect as temperatures gradually rise.

Here in Orlando, people are working hard on repairs and cleanups and just coming to grips with the last week. Cleanup is going to take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and a lot of money. And though there may be glimmers of hope — the supply drives, the mutual aid, the community cleanup efforts — this is going to take a lot of money and a lot of will from local leaders. The real work is only just beginning.

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