The country has not seen a hurricane as devastating as Ian in many years. And as though dealing with the wrath of Mother Nature and her destructive ways weren’t enough, Hurricane Ian landed in an area of Southwest Florida that had been previously manipulated by greedy developers just trying to make a buck. Anytime a hurricane reaches winds of 150 miles per hour, you know there is going to be significant damage. But the destruction was much worse because the area’s geography had been dredged and filled over the course of many decades by unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Because so many houses had been built where the wetlands used to be, the storm surge had nowhere to go but into houses and businesses, raising both the death and monetary toll for the area following the storm.

Wicked Winds Prevail

When Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida last Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 storm, homes and businesses were decimated, and roads and bridges were also damaged by the powerful winds and water. There is some question about whether the state had its evacuation orders in time, as different projections of the storm came in from different places. But when all is said and done, there are at least 100 people dead, and the best case scenario is that storm cleanup will cost more than $66B, with a cost of $75B possible.

Additionally, there will be long term effects felt across the entire country, as much of the citrus industry was decimated along with the roads and bridges. “Florida accounts for 70% of citrus fruits — such as oranges, grapefruits and tangerines — produced in the U.S,” according to ABC News.

At moments like this, it is abundantly clear that when people try to mess with Mother Nature, there can be dire consequences. Throughout the 20th century, developers ripped out mangroves and drained swamps, in effect changing the entire topography of the land, and constructing houses on the coastal areas that were supposed to support inland areas in case of a storm surge.

“What this is basically showing us is that developers, if there’s money to be made, they will develop it,” said Stephen Strader, an associate professor at Villanova University who studies the societal forces behind disasters. “You have a natural wetland marsh … the primary function of those regions is to protect the inland areas from things like storm surge. You’re building on top of it, you’re replacing it with subdivisions and homes. What do we expect to see?” What we see in the aftermath of Ian is utter devastation.

Downfalls of Dredge and Fill

Southwest Florida was created by a steady diet of the development technique known as dredge-and-fill. This is the same type of tactic that creates water hazards and cascading greens on a golf course. Workers dig the earth from the bottom of rivers and swamps, then pile it up to create solid, artificial land. There were many reasons for this, from creating pathways for rainwater to flood into the Gulf of Mexico, to controlling the inland flooding. They created finger canals from the existing swamps, and built hundreds of thousands of houses for retirees.

There were several unscrupulous companies that changed the landscape of southwest Florida without looking ahead to what might happen in the future. Two brothers, Leonard and Jack Rosen, founded the Gulf American development company in the 1950’s and started cutting hundreds of canals in an area of land across the river from Fort Myers. They created Cape Coral this way and sold the plots by mail order to retirees and other people from the north.

“Though the main objective was to create land for home construction, the use of dredge-and-fill produced a suburban landscape of artificial canals, waterways and basins,” wrote the authors of the 2002 survey of Florida’s waterways. “The canals served a number of purposes, including drainage, creation of waterfront property as an enhancement for sales, access to open water for boating, and a source of fill material for the creation of developable lots.” This sounds like a good idea, until a hurricane comes along and ruins everything.

Another nefarious group of developers, the three Mackles brothers, owned General Development Corporation, and did the same on Florida’s Gulf Coast. North Port, Port Charlotte, and Marco Island were all created in this way, and all part of the hardest hit areas last week when Ian came ashore with a vengeance.

Strader explains that the waterfront properties that have been built along the canals are nice, but they come at a price. “And now everybody’s got a waterfront property … but it also means you get more water intrusion,” said Strader. And it is this water intrusion that caused so much unnecessary damage when Ian roared into the area.

After a myriad number of complaints, the dredge-and-fill process was restricted in the 1970’s, but by that time the damage was done. Although some members of the public were outraged by the runoff of human waste and chemicals that would make their way to the oceans from the man-made canals, it seems that residents were more interested in their waterfront property than in worrying about the future. Cape Coral, in fact, experienced a 25 percent increase in growth between 2010 and 2019.

There is no doubt that the climate is shifting, and that the world can expect more damaging storms of this nature moving forward. Until last week, only three hurricanes had made landfall since 1960. But Ian brought to light many of the problems associated with manipulating the state’s coastal wetlands. The same thing happened in Louisiana during Hurricane Ida, where homes were built mere inches away from the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, most homeowners’ policies do not account for flood damage, and with the economy the way it is, an extra insurance policy for strapped families is the first thing to go.

Real estate analytics firm CoreLogic reports, “As hurricanes grow stronger, property losses will continue to mount and the insurance industry will see increased financial implications.”

They add, “Climate change and development patterns are increasing the potential for property damage as hurricanes generate more rainfall and as sea levels rise, intensifying storm surge. Since the 1980s, weather-related losses in the U.S. have increased by between 70% and 90% each decade.”  These numbers will continue to rise.

Because of the changes to the climate, the problem will continue to worsen before getting better. And people living in coastal areas need to deal with the sins of their forefathers to prepare for the next big storm. Greed got us here, but a step back is necessary to right the wrongs of the past. With so much at stake, there is no time to waste.