Commentary

Hurricane Ian: This is climate change slapping us upside the head with a 2×4

Despite what climate science tells us, these communities will be rebuilt

October 10, 2022 7:00 am

Boats sit grounded in a woodland area and along the side of the road after being pushed by rising water from Hurricane Ian near Fort Myers Beach on Sept. 29, 2022, in San Carlos Island. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surge and rain to the area causing severe damage. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Ian devastated Ft. Myers, reducing hundreds of buildings to filthy, soggy splinters, yanking houses off foundations, throwing trees around like match sticks. One woman, sheltering on the top floor of a resort said, “We saw everything get swept away.”

Pine Island is in pieces. The Myakka and Peace Rivers overflowed into the streets and living rooms of Arcadia and streams of sewage ran down the streets of pretty beach towns where no one thought that, here in Paradise, anything like this could ever happen to them.

Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens

Florida is constructed on dreams and greed. We’ll build anywhere if there is a buck to be made — even if the land is half water and almost certain to be hit with ever more powerful storms. The sunny coast that seduced so many from the colder latitudes to move south to a place where they imagined spending their days playing golf and drinking parasol cocktails, is now wrecked, drowned, and — given the rising seas — doomed.

Even in Central Florida, where people long assumed they’re far enough inland to be safe, the lakes overflowed. “There was no place to put the water,” said the Seminole County emergency manager. “There is still no place to put the water.”

Despite what the climate science tells us, these communities will be rebuilt. There’s too much money to be made. We know the floods will happen again and could well be worse next time. But we will pretend this isn’t happening.

Unaffordable, unsustainable

Hurricane Ian should make Florida’s politicians and Florida’s insurance companies rethink building on the coasts, the barrier islands, and the wetlands. It’s unaffordable. It’s unsustainable. It’s environmental suicide.

But in Florida, real estate is a religion, and short term profit is a sacrament.

Southwest Florida still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Irma in 2017. In Bonita Springs, the feds gave the city $5 million to buy out people living in the most vulnerable areas and help them find housing on higher ground. To date, the public works department has only bought three properties. The houses that Irma inundated five years ago have flooded again.

It’s nearly impossible to reconcile the Tommy Bahama lifestyle people demand with the reality of coastal ecology.

We’re in denial.

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

Look at Cape Coral, Exhibit A in the Great Florida Land Con. Ian decimated its infrastructure, boats sit on the smashed roofs of houses, cars floated out to sea. This city should not exist.

It didn’t exist until the late 1950s when, as Michael Grunwald describes them, “two shady brothers who made their fortunes selling scammy anti-baldness tonics” bought up nearly 600,000 acres in Lee County, ripped out the mangroves that stabilized the shoreline, dredged 168 miles of canals through what had been productive wetlands, and made “seven perfectly rectangular man-made islands and eight perfectly square man-made lakes.”

They marketed Cape Coral as a “waterfront wonderland,” boasting the place had “more canals than Venice.”

Cape Coral also has more floods than Venice. Even before Hurricane Ian tore through, the city — five feet above sea level on a good day — has long held the dubious distinction of being the nation’s most at-risk for flooding.

This is the story of the Sunshine State, where for a century we have thought we could out-smart and out-engineer Nature in the name of profit. Drain, pave, sell. Repeat.

The seas are rising an inch every three years. The warming waters guarantee bigger, badder, slower hurricanes dumping more water on us. Building in wetlands and marshes — Cape Coral is one of the worst examples, but there are plenty of others in Florida — means that storm surges will be higher and stronger.

Before our very eyes

This is climate change not merely happening before our very eyes, but slapping us upside the head with a 2×4. Millions are suffering because of it, not just in Florida but in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South Carolina. Millions more will suffer in the coming years.

Except for a gaggle of militant science-deniers, Americans know there’s a climate crisis.

Unfortunately, that gaggle of science-deniers includes Florida’s two senators as well as Florida’s governor.

Marco Rubio
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida

Marco Rubio will admit that the climate is changing, kind of, but hates to blame, you know, humans. Rick Scott is the guy who not only banned any mention of climate change in his administration but also abolished the Department of Community Affairs, the agency charged with growth management. DCA was pretty much the only state entity trying to stop bad developers from raping and pillaging Florida’s last wild lands.

Hot off his asylum-seeker trafficking caper, Ron DeSantis is stomping around southwest Florida trying to look empathetic, never saying that climate change contributes to the ferocity of storms, and certainly never vowing to do anything to address the root of the problem.

DeSantis likes to talk about “resilience.” The Phoenix’s own Craig Pittman translates that bit of mendacity for us as: “I am throwing a lot of taxpayer cash at well-connected contractors to pay them to armor the coastline to save waterfront property owners from getting flooded. And that’s all I am doing.”

Ron and Casey DeSantis deliver food in Naples on Oct. 3, 2022, part of relief efforts following Hurricane Ian. Source: DeSantis Facebook

To his credit, DeSantis has paused his 24/7 trashing of President Biden, Anthony Fauci, critical race theory, drag queens, and corporations trying to address racism and climate change to stomp around Ian’s wastelands, wearing his campaign merch, even as he blasts “politicizing” the hurricane.

What he hasn’t done is anything about our addiction to fossil fuels. He hasn’t even done anything about the toxic blue-green algae choking Florida lakes and rivers — even though he established a “task force” to figure out how to fix it. Nor will he tell Big Ag to stop dumping their noisome crap (often literally crap) in our lakes and rivers.

And he sure won’t encourage developers to follow the example of communities like Babcock Ranch, a solar-powered community with underground power lines and retaining ponds that keep houses from flooding.

That stuff costs money — money that would cut into the profits of those upstanding developers selling those poor frost-bitten Yankees a slice of Eden.

DeSantis is a classic short-termer, a profit-now-pay-later-guy. He’ll take the money — and the votes — now. He’s a real live Florida man. The future isn’t his problem — unless by “the future” you mean the 2024 presidential race.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.

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