By Matt Levin
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida in September 2017, Alex Philippe worked 12-hour days at an ornamental plant company in Homestead. He earned $8.50 an hour — enough to support his children in Haiti and begin thinking of his first trip home in a decade.
About This Story
This report is part of an FCIR series on climate change.
Then Irma blew through. Tree limbs cracked his apartment window. Rain cascaded in and soaked his belongings. The hurricane ravaged the fields where the ornamental plants grew, putting his job at risk.
Without the work, Philippe, 56, worried about his future: How would he pay for rent? How would he replace his waterlogged possessions? How would he support his family in Haiti?
Philippe thought about these questions for months after the lights had come back on, the floodwaters had receded, and Hurricane Irma had dispersed.
“The window is still broken,” he said in October, more than a year after the storm. “I told the landlord to fix it, but nobody came to fix it. I put a piece of plastic up to cover it.”
His rent has gone up, and with the ornamental plant industry still on the mend, he might work only nine hours some weeks. He’s far from the only one in Florida struggling to recover more than a year after Irma.
The effects of climate change are often described in future tense — as something that will happen decades from now. Yet for many Florida residents, climate change is already depleting meager savings and upsetting lives.
Summers last longer, raising utility bills and escalating heat-related illnesses. Sea-level rise makes storm surge and flooding more likely and more dangerous. While climate scientists don’t necessarily think the frequency of hurricanes will increase dramatically, if at all, and they won’t attribute specific hurricanes to climate change, modeling indicates ripe conditions for more extreme weather. Warmer oceans will likely produce stronger storms, and changing wind patterns may slow the trajectory of tropical storms, increasing the likelihood of potentially catastrophic rain events as hurricanes linger over land.
For a decade, from 2005 to 2016, not a single hurricane made landfall in Florida. This hurricane drought was likely an anomaly, climate scientists believe.
Hurricane Hermine, a weak storm with maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour, ushered in our current hurricane era in September 2016. A month later, the much stronger Matthew traveled up the Atlantic coastline, but its eye stayed offshore.
In 2017, large-scale disaster finally struck. Irma became the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. Irma peaked as a Category 5 in the Caribbean before weakening to a Category 4 as it made landfall in the Florida Keys. A downgraded Irma traveled up the center of the state, leaving 6.7 million customers without power from South Florida to the Panhandle and causing more than $10 billion in damage.
Ten days later, Maria, which also reached Category 5 strength, devastated much of Puerto Rico, causing more than $90 billion in damage.
This year, Hurricane Michael delivered more than $15 million in damage to the Panhandle. The Category 4 storm had the third-lowest pressure reading, a measure that corresponds with storm intensity, of any storm to make landfall in U.S. history.
But as those who lived through Irma demonstrate, the effects of hurricanes can last long after storms dissipate, particularly for Florida’s most vulnerable residents.
Jacksonville hadn’t seriously prepared for hurricanes. In 2017, Irma arrived like “a slap in the face,” said Jeffrey Goldhagen, a pediatrician and former director of the Duval County Health Department.
“Irma was a reflection of what we would anticipate in the future to become the norm, not the exception,” Goldhagen said.
The decade-long absence of major hurricanes in Florida may have bred complacency at the same time climate change became a political issue. Under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who took office in 2011, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other state agencies prohibited officials from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in official communications, as the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed in 2015. Scott, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in November, slashed nearly $700 million from the budgets of water management districts as governor and oversaw the state’s reduced enforcement of anti-pollution regulations.
Many of Florida’s local government followed the state’s lead on climate change oversight. Jacksonville, like most of the state, retains outdated flood maps, inefficient septic systems and impotent housing laws that end up punishing the poor by not requiring landlords to install air-conditioning units in apartments or put in window screens to keep out mosquitoes.
During and after Irma, widespread flooding created the most pressing challenge for Jacksonville. Water overflowed into neighborhoods from the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River. Children with respiratory issues came to see Goldhagen for treatment for ailments likely exacerbated by mold growth. It’s a problem that disaster-prone cities need to anticipate, he said, pointing to studies that showed a sharp rise in non-communicable diseases, primarily respiratory illnesses, after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York City area in 2012.
Across the river from his office, Goldhagen could see how recovery after Irma diverged for affluent residents and low-income ones.
“Along the river there’s obviously very expensive homes,” Goldhagen said, pointing to the San Marco neighborhood. “Those folks fixed them, and just on the other side of the street, there are very low-income homes. Those people had to leave.”
In San Marco, many of the brick estate homes are pristine again and businesses that cater to the the younger clientele that frequent the neighborhood on weekends are open again now. But lower-income housing and apartment buildings nearby present a different story. In some places, high water marks from flooding remain visible on front doors. But the most glaring reminders of Irma are the shabby, empty apartment buildings just blocks from the expensive houses along the river.
Erin Anderson and Tim Coleman, who recently moved into an apartment that was renovated after the storm, consider themselves lucky to have avoided a worse outcome.
Anderson, 26, received a mandatory evacuation notice for her San Marco place as waters from the St. Johns River lapped at the door. She chose to stay, knowing that finding a place for herself, her dog and her bearded dragon lizard would not be easy or cheap. Anderson watched as as others in the community were were forced out of their homes by rising waters.
“[There were] people in kayaks and all their belongings in trash cans, just wading down the street,” she said. “It was unfathomable.”
From her apartment, Anderson saw floodwaters lift up vehicles and carry them away. One car floated into the Kitchen on San Marco, a restaurant that had been open for two years but shut down permanently after the hurricane.
Anderson and Coleman lost their jobs after flooding shut down the eateries where they worked. Coleman, 31, has a job now in construction and felt fortunate to find an affordable apartment and cheap flood insurance. Neither he nor Anderson had purchased flood insurance for previous residences. Many of their neighbors that left in the chaos after the storm haven’t returned.
Lost electricity, lost savings
It didn’t take long for the lights to go out at the Bartow home where Taynisha Horner lived with her family. Even minor rainstorms tended to knock out electricity to the house. However, after Irma struck, power didn’t reappear for more than a week.
“I walked outside [after Irma], and it’s like pitch black and there was no electricity,” said Horner, 18. “I couldn’t see from out the door to my car. I had to use the flashlight on my phone. That’s what I remember from it. Being pitch black and not being able to see anything, and having a curfew.”
The curfew lasted until midnight each day as the neighborhood waited for electricity. Records of power restoration times in Bartow and Lakeland, 15 minutes to the north, show that low-income communities in these cities suffered some of the longest post-Irma power outages in the state — more than a week for hundreds of customers. Utility companies say that power restoration can be delayed in areas due to weather or extensive damage. That at times can lead to poorer neighborhoods waiting longer for service restoration.
East Bartow is a primarily black community with a rich history. In this neighborhood visitors will find the L.B. Brown House, a home built by a former slave who became a successful entrepreneur in Polk County. One of the oldest black churches in Florida provided emergency supplies and a place for people to charge their phones after Irma. Clifton Lewis, a 75-year-old resident and community leader in Bartow, believed the community came together as they weathered the long power outages.
“Neighbors came to help neighbors,” Lewis said.
Not everyone was as forgiving of the slow response to Irma. A few blocks away, April White, 50, searched for people who had similar prescriptions to her blood pressure and diabetes medications. She had run out and couldn’t reach an open pharmacy.
Most of all, however, White regretted what she had lost in the storm. The East Bartow resident lives off of disability and her several hundred dollars in savings. When Irma struck, a tree landed on her chain-link fence. She tried to use a saw to cut it down. The saw broke. She said she asked her landlord for assistance to no avail. So White shelled out $600 to pay for a tree removal service. She said she followed FEMA’s instructions to apply for a reimbursement, but she has given up on receiving that money.
“That was money for my medication,” White said. “They’re not even getting me reimbursed for my saw and stuff. That’s used to cut trees and keep [growth] back because there are snakes behind here. But, hell, I ain’t being reimbursed for my stuff.”
Homes still damaged
Maxie Robinson Jr. and Maxie Robinson Sr. lounged in the humidity outside their Lakeland home in October. The 98-year-old Robinson Sr. boasted about how the heat doesn’t bother him these days and how it didn’t torment him when his house lost power for a week after Irma.
But Robinson wishes someone would fix the leaks in the house. The family tried to patch them up a year ago. His 74-year-old wife Barbara said when FEMA representatives visited the house, the agency thought the problem was resolved and moved on to the next house. Then another storm came, and rain poured in so hard that the ceiling above the bathroom collapsed. The sink filled with water and snapped off the wall.
The family is rained on if they go to the bathroom during a thundershower. The dripping continues for hours after a storm has passed. Another leak that formed in the bedroom worries Barbara, who questions if mold from the water damage is affecting their health. She asked FEMA to come back for a second look, but the officials never returned and repairs proved too expensive.
In September, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity launched a long-term recovery program, Rebuild Florida, to provide $616 million to fix or upgrade homes damaged by Irma. The program prioritizes low-income residents, and the deadline to apply is March 29, 2019.
Barbara Robinson filled out an application. She is one of nearly 10,000 applicants on the program’s waitlist as of December 21. A spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity said the review of application has begun and repairs should start in two to three months.
Around Lakeland, Robinson had seen the blue FEMA tarps on other homes around town and wondered if one of those could go over her roof. She just wants to cease the patter of rainfall inside her home, but she hasn’t figured out how she can obtain a tarp from FEMA.
“A friend of mine at church, I asked him if they could find someone to put up some blue stuff up there at least. And then maybe it won’t rain here,” Robinson said. “Hopefully they’ll come.”
Matt Levin is a freelance reporter who covers issues related to immigration and the environment.