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Florida tries to prepare for increasingly intense hurricanes

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Hurricane Ian flattened parts of southwest Florida last September and caused widespread flooding. The waters took months to recede. Now, residents in central Florida are figuring out how to live in a place where hurricanes could become more damaging because of climate change. Amy Green with member station WMFE in Orlando reports.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: What you won't hear in New Smyrna Beach is the sound of hammering on new homes. That's because leaders of this coastal community south of Daytona Beach agreed to halt new residential development for six months in certain flood zones.

FRED CLEVELAND: We want to go back to the experts and say, hey, have we built properly?

GREEN: This is the mayor of New Smyrna Beach, Fred Cleveland, three months after Hurricane Ian inundated parts of the community with four feet of water.

CLEVELAND: Do we need to build differently going forward? Do we need to have different set - a rule set than we have today?

GREEN: Cleveland says leaders want to see how new residential development may have contributed to historic flooding that left hundreds of people needing to be rescued. The moratorium on new construction is a remarkable step. In Florida, development is embedded in the state's DNA. Cleveland says he believes it's prudent.

CLEVELAND: Given the fact that in less than two months we received significant damage, more flooding than we have in decades, more wind than we have seen in a long, long time.

GREEN: Last year's hurricane season was a wake-up call for many Floridians. Hurricane Nicole followed Ian a few weeks later, inundating areas that Ian had spared. The hurricanes are responsible for rainfall amounts that experts say have not been seen here in hundreds of years.

JANET BUFORD-JOHNSON: I haven't been over here in two days, so it has a little bit of a wonky smell.

GREEN: In Orlando, Janet Buford-Johnson's house is near a pond.

I almost feel like I smell just a little bit of a fishy smell.

BUFORD-JOHNSON: Almost.

GREEN: Do you smell that?

BUFORD-JOHNSON: Yes. It smells just like the water.

GREEN: During Hurricane Ian, the pond swelled, nearly swallowing her and her 15-year-old daughter alive.

BUFORD-JOHNSON: It's traumatizing. I can't put it in words.

GREEN: Buford-Johnson and her daughter were rescued from water that was at least three feet deep in their home.

BUFORD-JOHNSON: I mean, the water was high enough where if I fell and I hit my head, I would not be alive and nor would my daughter.

GREEN: That terrifying flooding was caused mostly by Ian's and Nicole's monumental rains. Historically, Florida's wetlands would have served as natural sponges, absorbing all that water. Instead, a lot of these wetlands are now filled with homes. Mike Register is executive director of the St. John's River Water Management District. He says his agency is trying to preserve what's left of Florida's wetlands.

MIKE REGISTER: We've focused on trying to acquire as much of that flood plain as possible so that when the river does come up, it's able to go into these natural areas and spread out like it was designed to do and not move into neighborhoods and into people's homes.

GREEN: Governor Ron DeSantis has put a billion dollars toward hardening the state's infrastructure against warming temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes brought on by climate change. The funding, some of it federal money, is intended for coastal and inland communities, like where Buford-Johnson lives. County commissioners have agreed to deepen the pond and fund projects to improve the flood control in her neighborhood, but Buford-Johnson is skeptical.

BUFORD-JOHNSON: It's going to happen again. It's just a matter of time.

GREEN: Florida is not the only state grappling with how to adapt its infrastructure in a warming world. Nationwide, there were 18 climate-related disasters last year with costs exceeding $1 billion each, including hurricanes, drought, wildfires and floods. Rachel Cleetus, with the Union for Concerned Scientists (ph), says there needs to be more investment in infrastructure.

RACHEL CLEETUS: There are communities that have been systematically left behind and that are now at heightened risk.

GREEN: Cleetus says there also will be areas that will soon be overwhelmed by flood risk.

CLEETUS: So as we go forward, it's not enough just to think about upgrading infrastructure, but how can we do it in a way that we no longer leave communities behind?

GREEN: For Buford-Johnson, she's ambivalent about staying in central Florida.

BUFORD-JOHNSON: This house is not my house. This is just a shell of what it used to be.

GREEN: She says she's fearful about moving back to her house only to have it flooded again from a future hurricane. For now, Buford-Johnson says she's leaning toward repairing the house and selling it. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD & GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "TONE'S RAP (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Green