Areas hit hard by natural disasters, like Fort Myers, Florida, which was hit by Hurricane Ian at the end of September, experience long-term population changes that can delay how long it takes to return to normal.
A study from Duke University shows after natural disasters, areas hit hardest see a population decline months and years after.
Part of it is due to death from the disaster, another is property displacement as homes and apartments are destroyed, and for others, the reason they never come back is the cost and strain it takes to rebuild
“This will no way ever be like it was before,” said Nick Adams, whose business was wiped off Sanibel Island after Hurricane Ian. “It categorically cannot be [the same]. There are historic buildings where the roof is sitting on the sand.”
Adams moved to Southwest Florida in 1999 with his wife, Lori. They established a successful photography business on Sanibel, an island of 6,400 residents off the coast of Fort Myers. When Hurricane Ian barreled through the region on Sept. 28, Sanibel was one of the hardest hit areas as the causeway that connects the island to the mainland was destroyed.
As of mid-November, traffic on and off the island is restricted to residents and business owners only as the rebuilding process has only just begun.
“Daily, we’re seeing people we’ve known for 20 years in business posting this is going to be it,” said Adams. “We’re done, we can’t rebuild, we can’t afford it.”
The Adams don't plan on rebuilding on the island.
“Economically, we can’t afford to rent a studio out there if there’s no business. It doesn’t make any sense,” said Lori.
The loss of business and population in the time after a disaster can delay the rebuilding of these areas for months and years, but it can also spawn new growth, according to the Duke study. It showed investors take over land sold by old residents and new people come in because of labor opportunities.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Hispanic share of the population in New Orleans rose 57%, partially because of the number of construction jobs available.
It will be months before those large-scale opportunities make their way to Southwest Florida. Lee County Public Works said there are still millions of cubic yards of debris that need to be cleared from front yards across the region.