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Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis' climate change policy is under scrutiny after Hurricane Ian

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has touted a record amount of spending to help his state prepare for the effects of climate change. But his policy on that front is coming under scrutiny by many residents still reeling from Hurricane Ian. Amy Green of WMFE in Orlando reports.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Jason Diaz awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of trickling water.

JASON DIAZ: When I stepped up, I was already ankle deep in water.

GREEN: The next few hours were a blur of evacuating family members and neighbors and swimming through five feet of water. A few days later, Diaz sat near a noisy idling bus outside the Kissimmee Civic Center, which had been turned into a shelter for the displaced like him. Virtually everything he owned was swamped back at his apartment.

DIAZ: I'm not sorry about losing my stuff. It's just that I had - and I might get emotional. I had a collection of collectibles for my grandkids that I've been collecting for 30 years, and that's all gone.

GREEN: When Hurricane Ian hit Florida, it destroyed coastal communities in southwest Florida before causing widespread flooding across the state's interior. The hurricane shows what states like Florida face as climate change leads to more extreme weather. DeSantis has focused his climate change policy on resilience. Under his leadership, the state has put more than $1 billion toward hardening infrastructure against rising seas and more destructive storms. The governor, a Republican, faces reelection next month and is considered a potential front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. During a stop in Daytona Beach, DeSantis said he's noticed that newer infrastructures seem to fare better against Hurricane Ian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: The stuff that was new, same with some of the homes, you do see the impact of that. And so I think we were right to do things like we have with the resilient coastline.

GREEN: DeSantis' program was signed into law in 2021, which means it's unlikely to have had a big impact on infrastructure before the hurricane. Environmental groups say the governor's climate change policy is long overdue in this Republican-led state. The funding has helped elevate roads, improve drainage and renovate wastewater pump stations, among other things. Some wonder whether the program goes far enough. Florida is a uniquely vulnerable state that has experienced explosive growth, especially along the coast during the past century. Environmental groups also point out the policy fails to address the main cause behind warming temperatures and wean the state from fossil fuels. Environmental lawyer Erin Deady says the most important thing about DeSantis' climate change policy is that it requires communities seeking state funding to document vulnerabilities and address them.

ERIN DEADY: If you're on the coast, then it's got to be resilient to the compounded effects of sea level rise, rainfall, you know, king tides.

GREEN: In central Florida, officials say the widespread flooding is historic. Altamonte Springs Commissioner Jim Turney, who lives near one of these affected neighborhoods, says he's hopeful about the resources available for flood victims, but he's also concerned about helping them rebuild in vulnerable areas.

JIM TURNEY: So you end up encouraging people to take risky behavior and put themselves in harm's way.

GREEN: He says he worries about what he characterizes as a moral hazard of enabling people, in some cases, to live in a known flood plain. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando.

PFEIFFER: This story was produced in partnership with Inside Climate News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Green