Thunderstorms dumped more than two feet of rain on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a single 24-hour period April 12-13, 2023. One survivor of the deluge was Ian Rowan, brother-in-law of Yale Climate Connections contributor Daisy Simmons. He shared his story with her.
“Are you sure you want to go out in that?” asked the receptionist. It was storming in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the people coming into the doctor’s office waiting room were soaking wet. You could hear the thunderstorm raging outside. But I needed to get home to my 4-year-old twins.
“We came into this world wet. I’ll be fine, thanks,” I said, bracing myself to exit.
There’s a small ramp leading out of the building, which I went down quickly in my wheelchair, anticipating just a wet, normal parking lot. But instead, I found myself suddenly up to my knees in water. I exclaimed something explicit.
I pushed through the deep water toward our minivan, which was on higher, less flooded ground. But fear was kicking in that I needed to get out of that lot quickly. I transferred into the van, threw my wet chair in beside me, and pulled onto the main road slowly. It felt like driving in a stream, with the water already up to the bottom of the car. At that point, it was pretty evident that my chances of making it home were 50/50, but I didn’t see any better options.
As I got closer to home, I passed one disabled car and then another. I’m like, OK there’s a really good chance I’m not going to make it all the way home. I made it about a block and a half from the house before the water was too high and flooded the van out. The electrical system stopped first, and then the engine stopped shortly after that. I tried to turn it back on and it was just fully dead.
Since the vehicle is mostly controlled via electronics, I couldn’t put it in neutral or roll a window down — I couldn’t do anything; I was essentially stuck there. I could open the door, but I didn’t want to as the water was already higher than the door level and it hadn’t yet broken the seal.
So I texted my wife, Claire: “The van died and I’m stuck in the water.” She replied with an expletive and started to worry. I felt embarrassed because I essentially just totaled our family vehicle and was definitely second-guessing my decisions.
Then I checked the weather radar app, which is typically fairly reliable in South Florida. That was not the case on April 12. When I checked the radar, it said the storm would be over in 20 minutes. So I waited, checked again, and now, “Oh the storm’s going to be over in another 20 minutes.” OK, I wait another 25 minutes. Finally, after about an hour of this, I realized this probably isn’t going to stop and I need to figure out a way out of here.
At that point, the water was seven to eight inches above the door line and had started to come into the floor.
The water being that deep means I can’t get into my wheelchair at all.
I thought about a dog pool float we have for our dog, Hans. It’s very buoyant and pretty big.
So our neighbor Drew went to our house, got the pool float, and waded through the water for two blocks up to the van. I opened the door and the water rushed in — it was probably six to seven inches deep in the van when I transferred out onto the float.
Drew took my chair and pulled me on the float down our river of a street. We made it most of the way without issue, but then his arm got tired and he readjusted, so my balance was lost and I fell backwards into the floodwater.
I was completely soaked again and also now covered in mulch from everyone’s yards, which was accumulating everywhere and sticking to me.
There were also a bunch of millipedes and beetles and other insects all over me because the flood was a flash flood. It happened pretty rapidly so the insects were just trying to find anything to save themselves. And they found me and the pool float.
By the time we got to my house, the water was only up about 75% of the driveway, so I hopped off the floaty and got into my chair. Then we all laughed about it because what else are you going to do? I was obviously bummed that the van was messed up, but at least our house never floods.
Built in the 90s, our house is a good foot higher than the older homes around here, which flooded sometimes while ours never did.
Or, rather, it never had.
I took a nice hot shower.
We figured the worst was over.
But after a few hours, the intensity of the rain hadn’t stopped at all. It was still pouring in an absolute torrent just like it was when I left the doctor at 4:30 p.m. — and now it’s 8:30 p.m. I look out and now the water is up against the garage door and this is the first time that’s happened ever since I moved here in 1998.
With the water this high, I know our neighbors across the street whose homes are lower-lying already have a foot of water or more inside their homes.
We reached out to everyone and learned that one neighbor, whose home had two feet of water inside, had nowhere to go and was really scared. Claire waded out into the water and brought her and her three dogs here, where she and her dogs would end up staying on our couch for the next three days.
Another half-hour goes by, water is in the garage for the first time ever. It’s a bummer but we don’t have anything too valuable in the garage down low, so we don’t think too much about it. We’re just like OK, that’s not great but it’s not a big deal.
Another half-hour passes and the water is significantly higher in the garage to the point where I still don’t think the house is going to flood yet — but it’s definitely possible.
Another half-hour goes by and now it’s almost 10 p.m. I turn to Claire, summoning my calmest voice, and say, “The water’s definitely going to come inside at any minute — we might have five minutes to pick up all the electrical, any surge bars, any cords, anything that’s low — we need to get that up.
“And then as soon as we do that, we need to get everything that’s valuable to the kids and get that up. After that, we can worry about our belongings and stuff that we think is important in the house.”
“What, are you serious?” she said, eyes big with tears.
“Don’t cry,” I said.
“I can’t not cry!” she said.
“You have to be strong to get all this together.”
She said OK and ran.
Later, she said it was the fastest five minutes of her life. First, she picked up the kids themselves, because their beds were on the floor, explaining that she needed them to run to Mommy and Daddy’s room, get on our bed, and stay there because dirty water was coming into our house, and they needed to stay up high.
“We are sleeping with you!? Yeah!” they squealed, jumping and bouncing excitedly until we warned them not to fall off into the water and to not let any of the blankets or pillows touch the floor.
“You need to stay on the bed,” I said. “Remember the water is dirty, it is not safe, it has yucky things that can make us sick.”
All floodwater is considered black water, meaning that it is filled with potential sewage, mold, gasoline, chemicals. Any kind of chemical you can think of, anything people might have in their garages, anything that might be in the sewers. It’s very, very dangerous water. Our neighbor actually got sepsis from just wading in it, trying to help other people and stuff.
Read: What should you do during a flood? Stay out of the water.
Meanwhile, Claire was ripping everything off their floor. It was literal Hulk strength — Mama Bear adrenaline. She picked up their mattresses like they were paper clips and stacked them onto the dining room table.
Around 10 p.m. the water started coming through the exterior doors — and then through the walls. I was in an interior room, moving posters from a flat file from our art collection when I saw water just come straight through the wall.
Turns out it’s really true what they say: When the water starts coming in, it’s immediate. It’s not a trickle, and it’s not like you can just throw towels or clothing in your doorways and stop it from happening.
“Look, the water’s coming towards your bed, Mommy!” Aurelia exclaimed at one point, before erupting into more giggles with her brother.
Finally, at midnight, we felt confident we had enough stuff picked up and couldn’t really do anything else, so Claire and I decided to try to get some sleep with the kids, and we all as a family piled into bed together.
I don’t know if you’ve ever slept over top of a swimming pool before. It was so humid and just unnerving sleeping in a bed over an inch and a half of water that’s all the way through your whole house. It was kind of cold, really humid, and just wet in the air, so even though we were in our bed and dry, everything felt cold and wet. And you could hear the water moving.
Plus, we were sharing a bed with two 4-year-olds who were kicking us and rolling around, and whenever we started to drift off, one of the three little dogs of the neighbor lady we were harboring would bark incessantly.
So yeah, we slept pretty poorly.
Waking up to a changed neighborhood
The next day when we woke up, we learned that 26 inches had fallen in Fort Lauderdale — half the precipitation we normally get in an entire year. Fortunately, most of the water had receded from the house, but the black water had already done its damage.
Claire immediately got the mop and the bleach and started disinfecting as much as we could so that the kids would be able to walk, wearing shoes, of course. She ended up dry and wet mopping that floor five or six times over the course of the next couple days.
We checked in with neighbors, too. Our other neighbor Dave is in a wheelchair, too, so he was stranded on his mattress until his 12 inches of water receded from his house.
It was really a somber time overall. One of our neighbors, Tracy, came in and was just sobbing, saying she can’t do this anymore and that they’re going to move. They came over via kayak and left their kayak in our driveway, which was still flooded. The water did not recede outside at all for two or three days after the flood.
There were catfish swimming down the street then.
Pretty much every single house in our neighborhood got flooded except for one. It was the most recently built, and per code, it was built even higher up than our house. It’s one of those things where there are no easy answers because the new construction has to be built to withstand these constantly rising waters — but in the older places, nobody has the budget to do that.
Read: Bubble trouble: Climate change is creating a huge and growing U.S. real estate bubble
Of course, all that water prevented any tow trucks from coming and most people from being able to drive down our streets. So we were all stuck for a couple days. The Red Cross set up an aid station at the shopping center down the street and they were using large, aquatic military-type vehicles to drive down the flooded streets to check on people.
After a few days of Claire kayaking around to deliver and pick up supplies around the neighborhood, and me explaining to the twins yet again why we couldn’t take them to the park, our friends and family were finally able to drive onto our street and help us move forward.
The next step was remediation, when they’d rip out the walls and floors, dry everything out. From there it would be rebuilding. The whole thing would take a long time but at a minimum, we and our things could not be there during remediation.
That meant we had to pack up the contents of our entire home and move everything into a storage unit in two days. Without a working vehicle — ours was indeed totaled. A friend has lent us her car, but it’s not equipped for me to drive it.
“Bye house, see you soon,” said Mars and Aurelia as we were leaving the house for who knows how long. They hugged one of the walls, but not in a sad way. We were relocating to my mom’s, a one-bedroom, highish-rise condo close to the beach.
Perspective from the 10th floor
It’s now been three weeks since the flood and everything has been difficult since, like nonstop chaos. Literally from the time we wake up to going to bed, we’re researching cars and flooring, doing insurance calls, figuring out stuff for the bank, along with normal life stuff still happening, doctors appointments, and other things.
We need a new car, we need a new house, we’re dealing with the insurance, FEMA, adjusters — it’s so complicated and we’ve had to Google so much and ask for so much advice, I could probably write a whole book about it now.
I’m thankful we have a comfortable place to stay. My mom sleeps on her couch while Claire and I take the bed and kids in tents in her bedroom. Her bathroom isn’t accessible, but we’ve been fortunate that the neighbor across the hall has an accessible bathroom I can use. They’re coming back to town in a few days, so I’ll lose access to that then. But like everything else, we’ll deal with it.
I don’t know what is going to happen. Some of our neighbors are talking about moving, but they have lower-lying homes. My sense is that staying and rebuilding is the right thing for our family.
This was such a bizarre and unusual amount of precipitation in so short a time. All trends point to these events becoming more common, like maybe it will go from once in 500 or 1,000 years to once in 100 years. For now, though, I feel like we are relatively safe. But that’s just one house.
Read: Why is it raining so hard? Global warming is delivering heavier downpours
Across South Florida, flooding is becoming a bigger problem every year. Rebuilding on higher ground makes sense on one level, but it also just creates these really deep streets that are going to just hold this water and allow floods to happen even faster around them.
As we speak, there are ongoing drainage projects through our whole neighborhood. All the streets are torn up and there are giant, concrete pipes all over all the streets. It’s like the city is acutely aware of what’s happening. And they’re moving at a bureaucracy’s pace to deal with it.
So you see the infrastructure of tomorrow being flooded by the floods of today. Which is the story of all of South Florida.
My version of the story, though, is more about the incredible resilience I’ve witnessed in our neighborhoods and families. Our neighborhood was full of stranded cars and mountains of trash, as many people had to throw away some or all of their possessions. But people came together, we helped each other however we could.
With my limitations, I am reduced to the role of delegator in situations like these. I try to relieve as much of the intellectual and emotional burden as I can to allow Claire to execute most of the physical tasks that would normally be shared. I try to give her the peace of mind to move purposefully through a chaotic situation with precision and confidence so that at the end, we can breathe together and relax. Working together like this has always worked well for us — and I think it helped make us all more resilient in the face of this disaster.
I also think there can be value in our kids having gone through this, so long as we can take care of them while they do. It makes them more resilient, and maybe over time, our cities and communities too. Because kids like mine will grow up acutely aware of how real these problems are and what they need to do about them. While current leadership is downplaying the severity of these issues or completely ignoring that they exist, these younger generations are growing up amid drought, flood, and increasingly severe storms. They’ll take it seriously.
The twins meanwhile are still taking this all in stride. They’ve mostly just been happy staying all together at their grandmother’s apartment, where she spoils them and they get to go to the beach every day.
They’re excited because rebuilding means, among other things, that they get to help redecorate the room they share. Aurelia wants a red wall with ladybugs. Mars wants a rainbow with Spidey, the little kid cartoon version of Spiderman.
Me, I’ll take whatever walls I can get. If someone were to ask what the best feeling in the world is, one of the top spots in my mind would be the peace of mind of knowing you’ve got good people in your corner. Even when it involves black water and a pool floaty.