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A conversation with WMFE's Amy Green and Joe Byrnes on covering Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole

December 13, 2022
A conversation with WMFE's Amy Green and Joe Byrnes on covering Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole

While neither Hurricane Ian nor Hurricane Nicole made landfall on the inland communities of Central Florida, the impacts were devastating. Many neighborhoods experienced severe flooding that destroyed homes and displaced families. Multimedia Producer Melissa Feito spoke with WMFE journalists Amy Green and Joe Byrnes regarding the WMFE radio news special After the Storms. Green and Byrnes, who cover the environment and elder issues, respectively, contributed reporting to the special. Readers can listen to the full radio special to learn more about the physical, emotional and economic damage of the storms on Central Florida and beyond. ,Melissa Feito - FPREN,So, let's just start by talking about what parts of your coverage area were the hardest hit by Ian and Nicole. Where did we see the most impact?,Amy Green,There is a neighborhood in Orlando called Orlo Vista. That's probably the hardest hit area that I encountered. Orlo Vista is a neighborhood primarily of low-income people and people of color. Just for example, the woman who I've been talking with primarily, she's someone who is going to have a tough time returning to her house. Finding someplace else to live is also very challenging because we have this horrible affordable housing crisis in Central Florida and finding any place to rent for less than $2,000 a month is extraordinarily challenging. Other people I've talked to, they have resources to rebuild, but the Orla Vista area is a place where people have a hard time accessing resources like that.

Joe Byrnes,I think the area that was hardest hit that I saw was a large senior community near Kissimmee called The Good Samaritan Society's Kissimmee Village. And basically, the whole community was flooded. We're talking about more than 500 apartments that basically were destroyed. That's a lot of seniors that are displaced. Some of them have found places, some are still in a hotel, thanks to FEMA, looking for a new place to live in. But that issue that Amy brought up of affordable housing is huge for them.

FPREN,Did you get the sense when you were talking to people and doing this reporting that folks in Central Florida were prepared for storms of this caliber?,AG ,I would say no. I talked today with an academic at the University of Central Florida who specializes in climate change and sea level rise. His name is Thomas Wahl, he also was interviewed as part of our program. He makes the point that it's really impossible to prepare for an event like Hurricane Ian. Governor Ron DeSantis described Hurricane Ian as a 500-year event. To prepare for a 500- or 1000-year event, it's just not fiscally possible. We're going to continue to have events like this, and they're going to be frequent because hurricanes are becoming more damaging with climate change.

JB ,The emergency managers, my impression is they did a great job. And so did first responders and National Guard going into flooded areas and helping people out. So, they were prepared to respond in that way. But there were some things that I don't know that they could have prepared for. For instance, Orlando had a lot of sewage getting out into the floodwater and into the water bodies. It indicates that just kind of how extraordinary the situation was.

FPREN,So, for you all, what were the challenges of going out to do this field reporting and getting the stories that you presented in this special?,AG ,I find this kind of reporting extremely challenging. The biggest challenge with flooding is, you want to talk to the hardest hit people, but unless you have a boat, it's hard to get there. And you're talking with people who have been through a considerable trauma. I find people who have been through trauma, it's helpful for them to talk about their experience. It's a balance of trying to be sensitive to the trauma these people have experienced, while at the same time you're under incredible deadline stress.

JB ,In talking with people who were affected by the storms, it's very emotional. And I'm just so impressed by their ability to articulate this, their ability to communicate the ordeal that they're going through. And so, I talked to a lot of people who are going through a lot, and I found them very open. It really breaks your heart, and all you can do is hear their story.

FPREN,For the areas that have been hardest hit, is there a timeline for getting back to normal? Or are potentially some areas damaged for a very long time to come?,AG ,It'll be a really slow process. There are places that have been inundated up until just a few days or a couple of weeks ago. It's been two months since Hurricane Ian... the rebuilding and the renovating hasn't been able to start because the flooding hadn't gone away yet. And then other people, like the woman who I spoke with who lives in Orlo Vista, I think it's unlikely that a lot of those people will get back to where they were. I think it'll be more like a step sideways.

JB ,Some of these people, the seniors that I was talking with, never will get back to where they were. They are at that point in their life where they're on a very fixed income, they're not able to go out and earn a lot of money and restock and buy all the things that they lost. Some of them will never be able to rebuild the life that they had.

FPREN,In the immediate aftermath of storm, we see a lot of assistance come through. Now, it's been months, what assistance for those who were impacted by Ian and Nicole are we still seeing in Central Florida, from the state or from other groups?,JB,FEMA is still providing assistance for debris removal. And the people who have been dislocated who need a place, they still have hotel rooms, and I think that's been extended until April 30. Some of the assistance that is provided on the Gulf Coast isn't available in Central Florida. But there's a tremendous amount of assistance that has come including D-SNAP food assistance. So that was a big boost.

FPREN,I think the question on a lot of people's minds is could this happen again? Of course, we can't tell the future, but have local governments said anything about preparing for the next event like this?,AG ,With climate change, we know that hurricanes are becoming more disruptive because sea level rise causes storm surges to be higher and more destructive. Hotter temperatures mean that there's more water in the atmosphere. And so that can cause more rainfall. And then hurricanes are fed by warm water temperatures, and we're seeing this rapid intensification of hurricanes like Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Michael, which hit the Panhandle a few years ago. So, yes, it's possible this will happen again. One small example to answer your question, I mentioned Orla Vista earlier. The issue there is a retention pond. And after Hurricane Ian, Orange County Commissioners agreed to put several million dollars toward deepening three retention ponds and adding a stormwater pump there to try to help the situation in that neighborhood. It's a good question. And it's kind of a complicated answer. But it kind of remains to be seen.

FPREN,You both are very seasoned journalists. But are there any lessons or takeaways that you felt you'll take with you after covering Ian and Nicole this year?,JB ,I have one I was thinking about: severe damage can be so far, either from the track of the storm, and even after the storm has lost a lot of his strength. By the time it even got to Orlando, it was a tropical storm. But the flooding in Volusia County, which is past Orlando, is just unbelievable. You would think by that point, Hurricane Ian wasn't a big deal. But that wasn't the case, obviously. And then when Nicole came in, it came in way south of Volusia County and those beaches that have been pretty much destroyed. You think you understand, based on the track of the storm, where people are going to have problems, when it can be off to the side or farther along.

AG ,I think the biggest lesson for me from this hurricane season, and I've done and stories to this effect, but I think for this longtime Floridian it's really sinking in. Which is that hurricanes today are a lot different than they used to be. And so, for longtime Floridians, and I fully admit I was one of those who when there was a hurricane in the forecast, I would be like, "well, they are overhyped a lot of times, let's just wait and see what this does." You can't wait and see anymore. Because with this rapid intensification, these things blow up into a Category 4 overnight. And so that's a challenge that the emergency management officials have faced when it comes to communicating what these hurricanes are going to be. And so, I'm very interested to see whether the message is sinking in for other longtime Floridians. For me, yes, it is.

JB ,I used to think that "I'm in the middle of Florida, so the hurricanes aren't going to be that damaging by the time they get here." And of course, this proves that they can still be very damaging.

AG ,I mean, a few days after Hurricane Ian, I went to a shelter in Kissimmee, and talked to a few people. They were all evacuated from the same apartment complex. And there had never been a flooding issue at that apartment complex before. And I talked with a woman was in a first-floor apartment. She had put her kids to bed, and suddenly, she said a wall of water was coming through her sliding glass door. These are people who were not prepared for flooding like that. So that will be a challenge for the officials to communicate to Floridians that hurricanes today are different.

Listen to the full special After the Storms to hear more about Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole's impact on the state of Florida, and what we can expect in the future.

Sources include nearest National Weather Service office, National Hurricane Center, and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (@FloridaStorms).
Sources include nearby emergency management agencies, FEMA, and your local NPR affiliate. 
Sources include the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Highway Patrol and other nearby traffic information.

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