‘Continuing to build in vulnerable areas does not make sense’

July 9, 2020 7:00 am

Cape Coral is a prime argument for growth management. The Florida Legislature is not cooperating. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

Six months ago, back when we could still safely leave the house, I drove down to Key West to give a talk about books. On the way back, I stopped off in Key Largo to look at the 215-home Stillwright Point neighborhood.

Outwardly, there is nothing remarkable about Stillwright Point. It looks like most other “finger canal” neighborhoods around Florida, where a developer has dredged canals along a waterfront and piled the fill atop mangroves to create slivers of land that look like grasping fingers. Waterfront homes in Stillwright Point go for six-figure prices.

What makes Stillwright Point remarkable is that last fall its roads remained inundated with brackish water for 90 days straight. At times the flooding — caused by a combination of king tides and rising sea levels — reached a foot deep.

Picture it: Three months of living in a mini-Venice minus the singing gondoliers. Residents had to pull on a pair of waders just to walk down the street. Anyone who tried to drive through the flood wound up with salt-damaged mufflers, brakes, and rims. A few homeowners put up handmade “NO WAKE” signs out by the road.

When I was there, I could still see standing water in some streets, looking like big puddles from a hard rain, but it no longer covered the entire road. I chatted with Patrick Cummings, 34, whose three kids were playing in his front yard. This wasn’t the first time their streets had been underwater for a while, he said, but it was by far the worst. Whenever the neighborhood floods, Cummings said, “it traps us all in here.”

I thought about the folks in Stillwright Point last week when the Miami Herald reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had come up with a plan to help such low-lying areas of the Keys. For a mere $5.5 billion — billion with a B — the Corps would elevate 7,300 houses, “floodproof” another 3,800 buildings, and tear down about 300 homes, whose owners would need a new place to live.

Two thoughts occurred to me when I read that story: 1) That’s an awful lot of taxpayer money to fix one county; and 2) the Keys are far from the only place in Florida facing this soggy problem.

On that same drive from Key West, I cruised down Fort Lauderdale’s East Las Olas Boulevard, where you’ll find the grandfather of all Florida finger-canal subdivisions with serious flooding problems. A developer named Charles Green “Charley” Rodes invented finger canal construction in Fort Lauderdale during the 1920s land boom.

He used dredges to create a series of canals and fill-dirt cul-de-sacs between East Las Olas Boulevard and the New River for a project that he originally named after Venice (although some accounts say he pronounced it “Venus”). The finger canals multiplied how many waterfront lots he could sell to suckers — er, customers.

I chatted with Las Olas Isles subdivision resident Stephen McGowan, 55, who has spent the past 21 years watching the king tides fill his street and creep up his sloping brick driveway every fall, even on sunny days. Every year, the water rises a couple of inches higher, he said.

“Is it climate change?” he asked. “I leave that for the scientists.”

While Fort Lauderdale may be where finger canals started, they reached their apotheosis in another Florida city, Cape Coral, billed in the 1950s as Florida’s “Waterfront Wonderland.” The construction by Gulf American was so poorly planned that while the company built lots of houses and a country club with a dancing fountain called Waltzing Waters, the developers forgot to include water lines, sewers, schools, and supermarkets. The one thing they had plenty of were canals — 400 miles of them, the most of any city on Earth.

Recently, a nonprofit group called the First Street Foundation noted the downside of that achievement when it released a new database showing the flood risk from rainfall, river flooding, or hurricane storm surge for more than 142 million homes and properties across the United States. To create the database, the foundation worked with more than 80 hydrologists, researchers, and data scientists. The No. 1 state for flooding risk is Florida, of course. And the No. 1 city in the nation facing a serious flood risk is Cape Coral — not quite all of it, but 111,237 parcels, which works out to 86 percent of the total properties.

Cape Coral won this dubious honor because it was “predominantly built on canals at very close to sea level,” Jeremy Porter, director of research and development at First Street Foundation, explained in an email.

I tried to talk to someone in Cape Coral’s government about this but got no response to my calls and email. Perhaps they were too busy bailing the water out of City Hall.

Tom Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at an organization called Florida Sea Grant that works to conserve coastal resources, says climate change is exposing the flaws of Florida’s century-long binge of rapid but sloppy growth. Finger canal subdivisions were built to be about a foot above sea level, which assumed that sea level would remain constant, he said. Of course, it did not.

While that type of construction has fallen out of favor, he said, other types that are still in vogue in Florida continue courting disaster, such as slab-on-grade foundations surrounded by lots of impervious surfaces that don’t absorb rainfall.

Despite the obvious peril from rising seas, nobody in charge in Florida seems fired up about combatting climate change right now. Instead they talk about “resilience” as if it were some magical incantation and not a euphemism for spending millions of taxpayer dollars to fix problems that developers caused.

“All we’re doing is propping up anybody with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” Ruppert told me.

Meanwhile, notes Jane West of the pro-planning group 1,000 Friends of Florida, local governments continue approving building new homes in flood-prone areas. For instance, in Vilano Beach, near St. Augustine, she said, builders are being allowed to put up new houses on lots where houses were recently washed away by a hurricane storm surge. The task of selling these homes is eased by taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance.

“It’s certainly a mixed message,” West told me. “Continuing to build in vulnerable areas does not make sense.”

This week I checked a website called “” and in spite of all the flooding problems, there are vacant lots for sale in Stillwright Point. For a mere $129,000, you too can buy property that you may sometimes be unable to access except by boat or paddleboard.

Maybe the best we can do is try to educate the folks who insist a water view is worth any risk even as the seas rise. To that end, I think the Legislature should require real estate agents to hand every buyer of waterfront property a pamphlet on how to deal with repeated flooding, featuring tips on how to dry your sodden carpets, how to get mold out of your baseboards and what’s the best bait to catch the fish that will be swimming down your street.

And once they read the pamphlet and sign a form saying they understand the risk, they get a free pair of waders and a professionally lettered “NO WAKE” sign to put out by the mailbox.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.