If one definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result, then rebuilding some devastated parts of Florida just as they were before Hurricane Ian would be truly insane.
Climate change is making hurricanes bigger, wetter and more intense. We know that sea levels have risen globally by about nine inches since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That change has been more pronounced in the Gulf of Mexico than in most other regions of the global ocean, with gulf waters expected to rise an additional 14 to 18 inches by 2050.
These changes were underway, if not understood, when Cape Coral, Fla., was laid out in 1957. Developed on low-lying land across the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers, the city is crisscrossed by an intricate grid of canals that allow many homeowners to dock their boats just feet from their back doors and that provide habitat for manatees and other wildlife. That is a lovely amenity — and a design that made sense more than 70 years ago. But last Wednesday, those canals ushered floodwaters deep into a community of 200,000 people that has an average elevation of just three feet. In video shot Thursday, it was impossible to tell Cape Coral’s water-filled streets from its canals.
Three long, thin barrier islands — Sanibel, Pine and Estero islands — guard the mouth of the Caloosahatchee. All felt the full fury of Ian’s Category 4 winds and massive storm surge. The causeway linking Sanibel to the mainland was washed out; the bridge to Pine was made impassible; and Fort Myers Beach, a popular sun-and-fun town on Estero, was reduced to a vast field of jumbled debris.
Storms such as Ian make clear that there is no choice but to live with, and adapt to, the climate change we have caused. The first step in adaptation is facing the facts.
“Sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing tide and storm surge heights to increase and reach further inland,” the NOAA said earlier this year. The agency’s scientists predicted that destructive “major” flooding will occur, on average, five times as often in 2050 as it does today.
The stretch of Florida’s southwestern coast that was laid waste by Ian, including the Fort Myers and Naples metropolitan areas, should be rebuilt in ways that take into account those new risks.
Building codes are one obvious place to start. In June, on the first day of hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched an effort to encourage the strengthening of building codes nationwide, with climate change in mind. Florida is actually in the vanguard on this score: After Hurricane Andrew slammed into the Miami area in 1992, killing 65 people and causing $27 billion in damage, officials adopted a statewide code that required new buildings, especially new and replacement roofs, to be more resistant to damage from high winds.
New Florida buildings vulnerable to storm surge are supposed to be elevated above ground by the height of a 100-year flood in that area, plus one foot. Given the pace of sea level rise, the increase in hurricane intensity and the fact that hundred-year storms now happen more frequently, however, new homes probably should be raised even higher.
A harder question is what to do about communities such as Cape Coral that have networks of canals. Engineers in the Netherlands have been installing gates to keep out storm surge for centuries, but doing so isn’t cheap. But then, raising the whole city higher wouldn’t be cheaper and would radically change the nature of Cape Coral.
The toughest question of all, in Florida and all the hurricane-vulnerable states, is what to do about development on the barrier islands. Obviously, we’re not going to evacuate Miami Beach, raze billions of dollars’ worth of resorts and high rises, and return that island to nature. But what about Estero Island, post-Ian? The town of Fort Myers Beach is decimated. Does it really make sense to build again, in that same spot, and just hope for the best?
Before rebuilding, the Fort Myers area needs to stop and think. There will be another hurricane as bad as Ian or worse — maybe next century, maybe next year. The best way to defend the Florida lifestyle is to reimagine it, not to sentence it to perpetual destruction.