Hurricane Ian did more damage than we saw, as an algae bloom, red tide, and destroyed marine habitat are found in its wake.
The Category 4 storm struck southwest Florida over a month ago, on September 28th. Ripping across the center of the state from Tampa to the Atlantic coast, it killed more than 150 in Florida and did billions in damage before heading out to sea, then swerved back to hammer South Carolina with flooding and still more damage.
The damage to cities, islands, and bridges was immediately obvious – it filled the news for days after the storm with images of wreckage and heartrending interviews with survivors. But there’s still more damage, under the waves.
A team of researchers from the Florida Institute of Oceanography took a 6 day cruise to follow the track of Hurricane Ian, and see what the violent winds and catastrophic rainfall did to the Gulf of Mexico.
They found devastation.
“The one-time vibrant reefs are now underwater disaster sites themselves,” said Calli Johnson, safety dive officer for the research cruise. “Where there used to be a complete ecosystem, there are now only fish that were able to return after swimming away.”
Johnson is speaking of the many artificial reefs that dot the shallow waters to the west of Tampa, part of what makes that area one of the best saltwater fishing destinations in U.S. waters. Sport fishing is a nearly $14 billion a year industry in Florida. The artificial reefs, some of them decades old, some still under construction, have been a primary tool of repairing what environmental mismanagement has done to the Gulf, and mitigating what climate change will continue to do. The massive storm surge associated with Hurricane Ian either tore the reefs apart or buried them in silt, and the fresh water it poured into the already brackish Gulf has contributed to lethally high algae blooms, including red tide which is deadly to both humans and manatees.
“Time will tell how this affects our greater economy, because changes in the fishing industry and tourism will come from changes in our underwater world,” Johnson said.