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The historical development of Southwest Florida made Hurricane Ian worse

Seventy-five years of developing wetlands to chase profits left the region more susceptible to superstorms

The destroyed road between Matlacha and Pine Island on Sunday after Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction in Southwest Florida. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Hurricane Ian devastated parts of Southwest Florida, with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) labeling the damage as “indescribable” before the storm barreled into South Carolina. The hurricane washed away homes, decimated Sanibel Island, closed parts of Interstate 75 and left Lee County — home to Fort Myers — without water. At least 100 deaths have been reported, and officials promised that the death toll would keep rising in the coming days.

While some see catastrophic hurricanes such as Ian as an act of nature — blaming bad luck for the damage — scientists cite climate change for the rise in “super hurricanes” of at least Category 4 or higher reaching U.S. shores.

But another factor played into the havoc wreaked by Ian: the unique development of Southwest Florida over the past century, which was driven by the idea that humans could control nature through brute force of engineering, wetland reclamation and private property development. This belief has left people and property more vulnerable, with fewer natural buffers to help reduce hurricanes’ impacts.

The area of Cape Coral, also in Lee County — one of the places hardest hit by Ian — was initially coastal marshland and wetland. Under the Swamp Land Act of 1850, the U.S. government nominally granted Florida access to more than 20 million acres of roughly charted wetlands — far more than any other state. As in other places, like California’s Bay-Delta Area and the Mississippi Delta, reclamation of wetlands was encouraged and supported, giving a green light to whatever productive enterprises could be launched to tame the soggy wilderness.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other entities changed the hydrology of the Everglades, constructing the levees, pumps and channels of the Central and Southern Florida Project for flood control purposes. These massive infrastructural projects permitted agriculture, the expansion of roads and the building of towns on what had been inland marshes.

Even so, coastal Southwest Florida remained largely inaccessible to transportation and basically undeveloped into the 1950s, save for some timber and cattle operations.

But this infrastructure set in motion the idea that the region’s vast landscapes could be reconfigured into lucrative planned, Levittown-style subdivisions. Housing demand was high among veterans, retirees and middle-class workers who now had cash, due to the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act — the vaunted GI Bill — which subsidized education and home-buying for a rising, predominantly White, middle class.

Warm, waterfront dreams awaited.

Baltimore-based visionary land developers Leonard and Julius “Jack” Rosen soon sprang into action. As Leonard Rosen recalled, he knew “as much about development as a six-month-old baby” when he first saw the area he would later name Cape Coral from the window of a small airplane in early 1957. Within several months, however, he and his brother had formed an investment firm and purchased the land from private owners for $678,000 with the goal of building a coastal city. They founded the Gulf American Corporation (GAC), based in Miami, and got to work engineering Cape Coral and facilitating the migration of homeowners to Florida.

Commentators have emphasized the slick marketing ploys and installment-type sales structure that successfully sold the dream of Cape Coral. The remaking of the landscape is equally important.

With the land treated as wasteland by government officials, the GAC faced minimal regulatory barriers in its reclamation pursuits. When assessing the impacts of such projects, Florida did not begin to incorporate the ecological value of wetlands (or the costs of their destruction) until the late 1960s. As historian David Dodrill summarized, “Virtually any project that would add to the tax assessor’s rolls was approved” on Southwest Florida’s coastal wetlands. Rosen and his brother received building permits easily and hired a Miami-based engineering firm, Rader and Associates, to prepare the land for subdivided residential use.

In the Rosens’ eyes, ubiquitous marshes and tidewater at sea level were no longer problems but opportunities. And in an era that celebrated landscape transformation, experts were available to do the work. For example, Thomas Weber, who oversaw the engineering of Cape Coral, had gained experience with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on major development projects in Brazil. He used explosives to blast coral shelves and cleared entire tidal mangrove forests with large earth-moving tractors. Within five years, 168 miles of canals graced the landscape.

The GAC marketed their invented city as a “waterfront wonderland.” In 1958 — even before the Cape Coral subdivisions were accessible by roadway — the company flew prospective buyers in to hear a sales pitch and enjoy Florida orange juice. Advertising campaigns were relentless, and business boomed.

Land sales topped $9 million by the end of the year. While building on wetlands wasn’t new, the scale of the project was unprecedented.

Conservation and environmental regulation eventually hampered some of the Rosens’ ambitions for further expansion in the region, but the local damage in Cape Coral was complete. The GAC had managed to accrue 589,738 acres of land and, at its peak in 1967, conduct $144 million in total annual sales.

The money made and the swamp tamed, the ensuing decades made it all too clear that the hasty “improvement” of the landscape was part dream and part lie. Poor planning led to flooding, ongoing challenges meeting water demand, trouble maintaining basic infrastructure and sprawl.

Across Florida, the land drainage, dredging and development that preceded migration to wetland areas indelibly changed the landscape — and fueled a population explosion. Between 1936 and 1995, the state’s population increased from 1.7 to 14.1 million. That period witnessed a sixfold increase in urban land use and a 50 percent reduction of wetland areas.

Despite conservation efforts beginning in the late 1960s, oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency and the establishment of protected areas and ecological reserves, wetland areas have remained in decline. In Lee County, the period from 1996 to 2016 witnessed a 21 percent increase in total developed land and an 11 percent reduction of total wetland. Cape Coral remains among the riskiest places in America for flooding, even as local real estate companies still tout the wonderland dream of a city with “more canals than Venice.”

On par with state population growth projections, Lee County is projected to increase about 25 percent in the next two decades. The pressure to continue transforming wetlands therefore remains strong.

And there’s no guarantee that future development will adequately consider the risks of destroying wetlands. Fraught political battles to guide this development are ongoing in Florida, marked by efforts to minimize federal authority and grant the state greater autonomy to manage permitting and regulate development in floodplains.

Nor is this pattern of “coastal capitalism” unique to Florida. South Carolina, which felt Ian’s second landfall, now faces significant damage from storm surge inundation. Lawmakers and regulators in neighboring North Carolina have not taken sea level rise seriously, and have instead contested established science to advance pro-growth land use policies.

Driven by revenue needs, governments want to develop land and attract lucrative businesses. Like Leonard Rosen imagining what would become Cape Coral from an airplane window, those with capital will find the places and opportunities, as well as the easiest regulatory paths, to make a profit. Yet, as in Southwest Florida, this logic sells the dream of development while devaluing natural environments.

Now, caught between coastal capitalism and climate change, these developments lack functioning marsh ecosystems that can mitigate the impacts of coastal storms. Intact wetlands provide protection from the storm surge and flooding that make hurricanes so disastrous. Property damage from hurricanes is dramatically increasing — nowhere more so than in Florida.

Bigger, wetter hurricanes battering unprotected coasts is probably what lies ahead. Failing to understand this reality contributed to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian. And if we continue to pursue development paths that ignore the need for marsh ecosystems and wetlands, we’ll continue to see massive storms destroy our coastline to a far greater degree than they might otherwise.

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