Commentary

Development on Florida’s barrier islands made Ian evacuation virtually impossible

DeSantis, Cabinet OK’d one high-rise project despite warning of a 96-hour evacuation time

October 13, 2022 7:00 am

An area that once contained a building is shown swept clear following Hurricane Ian on Oct. 3, 2022, in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Jesus had some good advice for Florida developers: Don’t build a house on the sand. It won’t stand up when a storm hits.

“The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash,” the Son of God said in Matthew 7:27.

But Florida developers don’t like anyone telling them what to do, not even a deity with the power to walk on water. So, they have been building houses, condos, and a lot of other stuff on our sandy barrier islands for more than a century.

If you saw the pictures of all the beach communities devastated by Hurricane Ian, you saw a lot of buildings that “fell with a great crash.” Yet a lot of the people who survived the storm are vowing to build back better, build back stronger, and build back in the exact same place they got wiped out before.

I’m not here to mock the survivors and their determination not to be beaten by adversity. What I am going to do is suggest that some places that held buildings were not the appropriate places to put human dwellings — not in a hurricane-prone state where mandatory evacuation is a drill we should all know by heart.

You know how that happened, though, don’t you?

Builders trying to exploit a hot housing market for big profits ran roughshod over common-sense regulations intended to protect the public. Meanwhile, our elected officials went along with whatever the developers wanted.

A good example of what I am talking about is found in the recent case of Joanne and Bill Semmer vs. Lee County and Southern Comfort Storage.

Joanne Semmer appeared before the Florida Cabinet in August. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The case, Joanne Semmer told me this week, started about six years ago and involved a 7.58 acre property that contained a boat storage warehouse called Southern Comfort. The area had long been a working waterfront dominated by the seafood and shrimping industry.

But developers wanted to replace the warehouse with a marina, townhouses, and a high-rise resort called Bay Harbour, promising it would boost everyone’s property values. To do that, however, the developers needed a change in the county’s comprehensive plan for future growth.

Turns out, though, that the developers had a problem. The hurricane evacuation time for that area was already bad, and the occupants of Bay Harbour’s 100-foot-tall tower would make it worse.

“I said, ‘That’s not an appropriate place to put a high rise,’” said Semmer, whose home sits 140 feet from the Southern Comfort warehouse, and whose brother Bill owns property nearby.

The county commissioners gave the comp plan change their blessing anyway. Then, after a hearing in Tallahassee, so did Gov. Ron DeSantis and the three elected officials who make up the Florida Cabinet: Attorney General Ashley Moody, CFO Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Where, you ask, is Southern Comfort? On San Carlos Island in unincorporated Fort Myers Beach. It’s one of the places that Hurricane Ian all but obliterated with a roaring storm surge of more than 6 feet.

The Bay Harbour site is at a busy intersection where vehicles line up to cross over the Matanzas Pass Bridge to the mainland. It’s the same route residents of Estero Island use to evacuate — in other words, a crucial spot.

Semmer’s home across the street was one of the many places on Fort Myers Beach that Ian nearly washed away. When I called her, she was exhausted from trying to deal with all of her losses. She said things would have been far, far worse if Bay Harbour had been built before Ian hit.

If I were the elected officials who gave Bay Harbour the green light, I wouldn’t feel too Southern Comfortable about that decision now.

Four days, not one

Lee County officials waited to issue a mandatory evacuation order for coastal areas until 7 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27 — a little more than 24 hours before Ian ripped up everything in sight after making landfall on  Wednesday, Sept. 28. A lot of people said that wasn’t nearly enough time to for everyone to flee a storm just a shade less powerful than a Category 5.

If you watched the proliferation of post-hurricane news, you probably saw at least one of the reports about our thin-skinned Outrager-in-Chief, Gov DeSantis, batting away complaints about the evacuation time.

“They were following the weather track and they had to make decisions based on that,” he said in an interview with CNN that, as usual, turned into him heaping abuse on the reporter who dared to question him. “But you know, [at] 72 hours, they weren’t even in the cone.”

Ralf Brookes. Credit: the subject

Actually, part of Lee County was always in the cone of uncertainty — an especially apt term in Ian’s case. But that’s not my point.

Evacuations are not supposed to be like passengers fighting over space in the lifeboats as the Titanic sinks beneath the waves. They’re supposed to go in a very orderly series of steps.

“Governments have to plan how to get all these people out of here,” explained Ralf Brookes, who represented Semmer in her and her brother’s case against Bay Harbour.

Florida used to have a statewide planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs. That agency required counties to ensure evacuation times from flood-prone zones known as Coastal High Hazard Areas would be less than a day, Brookes pointed out. The law said the development density in those areas should not make the evacuees need more than 16 hours to get away from a Category 5 storm.

But when Rick “Look at My Navy Hat, Not My Hands” Scott was governor, he and the Legislature killed that planning agency as dead as if Michael Corleone had called for the hit. They claimed that by trying to steer development away from places it shouldn’t occur, the agency was ruining Florida’s economy.

In the 12 years since that unjustifiable homicide, local governments have been allowing more and more development in those Coastal High Hazard Areas. Thus, evacuation times have been getting worse.

How bad are they now? According to Lee County Attorney Amanda Swindle, the current evacuation time for Lee County in case of a Category 5 hurricane isn’t the legally required 16 hours but 96 hours.

Yes, I said 96. As in the number of tears Question Mark and Mysterians sang about.

“It is a long way off” from what the law requires, Swindle admitted.

That’s four days — or about three more than the residents got as Ian veered their way.

And Lee is far from the only county that has allowed too much development to pile up in a place where people can’t easily outrun a storm.

Not-so-smart growth

A four-day evacuation time. Think about that in the context of Ian. That’s pretty much the same as saying: “We’re never going to get everyone clear. Some people will die.”

After dropping that particular truth bomb at the August Cabinet meeting, Swindle noted that Lee had a lot of company in its rapidly sinking boat.

“Out of 45 counties in Florida’s coastal areas, only nine of those counties” can meet the 16-hour standard, she told the state’s top officials, who, for some reason, did not scream in dismay and swoon.

I did the math (don’t laugh, I occasionally remember how a calculator works): 80 percent of the state’s coastal residents live in places where there’s too much development for them to safely flee a storm.

That’s pretty dire. It sounds like a lot of local governments have been gambling with people’s lives to benefit the builders who fuel their campaigns. It’s almost as if they care more about money than their own voters.

In fact, it sounds like maaaaaybe the coastal counties should stop letting developers pack more residents into those death tra — er, excuse me, condos, townhomes, etc.

Amanda Swindle during the Florida Cabinet in August. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Instead of saying something like that, though, Swindle told the Cabinet how wonderful it was that there’s a loophole in the state’s 16-hour law.

“Otherwise, development in these counties would essentially be held hostage, unable to develop or redevelop their property until the county can somehow magically meet those evacuation times,” she said with a smile.

Thanks to this loophole, she said, Lee had allowed a lot of other projects to be built in the coastal high hazard area that made the evacuation time so bad. Nobody had bothered to challenge any before Bay Harbour came along, she said.

She then went on to claim — with a straight face — that Bay Harbour constitutes “smart coastal growth.”

To me, it sounded about as smart as Herschel Walker debating his bathroom mirror.

Get out of jail free

How did the Lee County Commission get around the law in approving Bar Harbour’s change to their comprehensive growth plan?

The same way state and federal wetlands permitters get around the laws that are supposed to protect wetlands: By promising to make up for any problems.

It’s called “mitigation,” and it’s the Get Out of Jail Free card of property development in Florida.

“Listen,” builders say, “I’m destroying 100 acres of wetlands, but through mitigation I’ll make up for the damage. I’ll preserve some land elsewhere or pull weeds from another swamp or write a check to someone in the mitigation business.”

Then they get their permit, even though the “mitigation” rarely makes up for the wetlands that are lost.

In the case of hurricane evacuation, the loophole in state law says developers can get around that evacuation-time standard by offering to mitigate whatever they have added to the time.

They can do that by building new storm shelters, donating land for storm shelters, or donating money for storm shelters. In other words, it’s all about shelters, not about making it any easier to get off the island. It just gives people more places they can go.

It’s as if your child said, “I’m hungry” and you give him a plate with nothing on it. You’ve equated an empty gesture with one that actually deals with the problem.

Just like John D. MacDonald

Here’s the reason the governor and Cabinet got involved in this dispute: An administrative law judge named Suzanne Van Wyck listened to Semmer’s objections to the comprehensive plan change, as argued by Brookes. Then she dismissed most of them.

But she ruled that Semmer was right about one thing. The judge agreed that the development would add to an already overburdened hurricane evacuations system, in violation of state law. She said that the comp plan change could stand only if the developer helped Lee County get its evacuation time down to 16 hours. That would be the only possible mitigation.

For some reason, the Lee County commissioners didn’t welcome someone being ordered to help them get their evacuation problem fixed. Instead, they appealed the case to the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Administration Commission.

I called up my friend Charlie Whitehead, a former Fort Myers newspaper reporter who became a community activist. He’s always had a reputation for telling it like it T-I-IS. He’s also one of Semmer’s neighbors. He, too, was totting up all that he’d lost in Ian’s powerful surge.

“The reason the evacuation times are so bad is that the Lee County Commission never met a developer they didn’t like,” Whitehead growled. “Our commissioners believe what’s good for the developers is good for Lee County.”

We also talked about the timing of the Cabinet hearing one month before Ian.

“It’s just so Florida,” Whitehead said with a chuckle, “that they did this right before a John D. MacDonald-style ‘Condominium’ hurricane hit.”

Dial A Prayer

At the Cabinet meeting, Swindle admitted that the county doesn’t even know how much or what kind of mitigation the commissioners might require for Bay Harbour.

She said the impact might even be so minimal that they wouldn’t require anything at all, a comment that drew a sharp rebuke from Attorney General Moody, who said it wasn’t believable. (I found it completely believable.)

Russell Schropp during the Florida Cabinet in August. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Russell Schropp, representing the developer, told the Cabinet that his client was only willing to make up for what his project added to the evacuation time — not the whole thing. He mentioned building “an on-site shelter” — as if that should solve everything.

Semmer was there to warn everyone that a vote to overturn the judge’s ruling was a vote to put people’s lives at risk. She also said developers all over the state were watching to see how this case turned out.

Later, when I talked to her, Semmer had her own grim suggestion for how the developer could make up for all the new residents: “How many more body bags do they want to buy?”

Ultimately, DeSantis said he was going to side with the county, calling its position “reasonable.” So did the other Cabinet members — including Fried, a Democrat who seldom agrees with DeSantis.

Fried explained that she was voting to toss out the judge’s ruling because “this would be a very bad precedent for any future development in the coastal counties.” You can’t let anything get in the way of building more houses on the sand, despite what Jesus said.

I tried to contact the governor and Cabinet members to ask them if, seeing Ian’s destruction, they now regret voting 4-0 to approve even more construction out there.

None of them got back to me. Gee, I hope I gave them enough time!

Schropp also didn’t return my calls seeking a comment on whether this client — who before the storm sold the land for $18 million — plans to proceed with the development now.

Brookes said he wouldn’t be surprised if Ian just hurries up even more overdevelopment by sweeping away the old working waterfront.

“Are the builders who have always been part of the Florida scene going to buy up all these lots from the insurance companies at bargain basement prices and then build taller building projects with many more times the density?” he asked.

You know the elected officials will be bowing to whatever those developers want. So, here’s my suggestion. They should approve building in those areas that Ian destroyed, but with one requirement. Every single would-be buyer should get a photo showing exactly what that spot looked like after Ian hit.

Then, if they still want to buy there, give them the phone number for Dial-A-Prayer. They’re going to need it, because if another Ian hits, the only one who can help them is Jesus.

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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, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. 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.

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