ABOVE: Fort Meyers in 2021 © ISTOCK.COM, Alexander Westermann

Having seen California earthquakes, Oklahoma tornadoes, and Icelandic volcanoes, Christina Anaya is no stranger to the natural world’s dangers. So when she moved to Fort Myers last year to work at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), the ecological parasitologist knew what she was getting herself into. Last week, with Hurricane Ian looming, she held a “prepare for the worst, hope for the best” mindset, stocking up on food, pulling out her camping stove, refilling the batteries on her flashlight, buying drinking water, and taking her two dogs south on Tuesday, September 27, to wait out the storm with friends in Bonita Springs. With 150 mph winds forecast, she wasn’t sure whether her apartment would make it through. 

Hurricane Ian caused formidable damage when it hit Florida on September 28 as a Category 4 hurricane. Although the city of Fort Myers was relatively unscathed, the Fort Myers Beach area just 13 miles away faced catastrophic damage. Hurricane Ian levelled restaurants, bars, and shops, destroyed trailer home communities, and swept away beachfront houses. The statewide death toll is at more than 100 as of today (October 5), with more than half of these deaths in Lee County, where Fort Myers Beach is located, CNN reports. President Joe Biden described the damage as some of the worst in US history, Reuters reports. 

Yet, because there are no research institutes in the areas badly hit by the storm, scientists including Anaya, who had prepared for the worst, found their work largely unaffected. Her apartment regained power and had running water soon after the storm passed. The day after the hurricane hit, Anaya returned to the university to pick up a few books. Although she saw a few downed trees and shrubs on the walk through campus, nothing looked too far out of the ordinary. “It’s almost like I didn’t experience a hurricane because everything is so normal,” she says. 

Although FGCU and the surrounding city of Fort Myers were in the path of the storm, existing infrastructure set up to weather hurricanes was largely effective in protecting the area from damage, says FGCU virologist Scott Michael. His cinderblock home in Fort Myers lost just a few shingles. Throughout Fort Myers, hurricane-mitigating modifications such as strengthened traffic lights and stop signs, underground cables, improved building codes, and trees planted far from main roads helped the streets and buildings of Fort Myers stand strong against the storm. The university’s generators kept the power on in Michael’s lab, where he studies RNA viruses. The only casualty was a single freezer that didn’t reboot when connected to the generator, which caused its contents to thaw. 

We have to make sure to remember to give [hurricanes] the respect they deserve.

—Paul Kirchman, University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee

Other labs outside further from the storm’s path also faced little damage. Prior to the hurricane’s arrival, Paul Kirchman, a molecular biologist at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, had stored all his samples—bacteria and yeast strains that spanned more than thirty years of work—in freezers backed up by generators. Thanks to the generators, Kirchman was able to recover all his samples safely after the storm. But not even generators could have kept the samples safe, had the storm’s flooding reached his ground floor lab. “If it had come fifty miles farther north, I expect that probably everything would have been lost,” he tells The Scientist

This wasn’t Kirchman’s first experience with a major storm; he grew up in Florida and spent time in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina. “This [hurricane] is not as bad as what happened there,” he says. “But it’s close.” 

After doing some minimal cleanup, such as vacuuming out excess water, removing scattered trees and leaves, taking shutters off windows, and plugging equipment back in, the Sarasota-Manatee campus reopened for classes this week. But Kirchman says some students still aren’t able to attend in person. Many of them live farther south and are experiencing flooding that is causing power outages and interfering with gas stations, making it difficult if not impossible for them to make the drive.

Kirchman stresses that catastrophic damage like that caused by Hurricane Ian could easily happen again. 

“When you go through a few [hurricanes] and they don’t do anything, or they miss you, you start to think, ‘Oh, they’re no big deal,’” he says. “And then you see this happen. We have to make sure to remember to give [hurricanes] the respect they deserve.”