Despite Rising Seas and Bigger Storms, Florida’s Land Rush Endures – The New York Times
MIAMI — Florida was built on the seductive delusion that a swamp is a fine place for paradise.
The state’s allure — peddled first by visionaries and hucksters, most famously in the Great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s — is no less potent today.
Only, now there is a twist: Florida is no longer the swampy backwater it once was. It is the nation’s third most populous state, with 21 million people, jutting out precariously into the heart of hurricane alley, amid rising seas, at a time when warming waters have the potential to bring ever stronger storms. And compared with the 1920s, when soggy land was sold by mail, the risks of building here are far better known today. Yet newcomers still flock in and buildings still rise, with everyone seemingly content to double down on a dubious hand.
Florida mostly survived Hurricane Irma, which delivered its most severe damage elsewhere. More than a week later, nearly 400,000 weary, sweat-soaked people in the state remain without power; at least 50 did not survive the storm or its even more dangerous aftermath; and the billions in property damage are still being calculated. Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria rumbles across the Caribbean.
Many saw last week’s storm as another dress rehearsal for the Big One. But it wasn’t much of a reckoning for a state mostly uninterested in wrestling with the latest round of runaway development, environmental degradation and the mounting difficulties from catastrophic storms. Since the recession’s end, new condominiums and houses have been built at a gallop. Many rise on or near the coast, or, in some cases, environmentally important wetlands, which were nature’s way of absorbing water. Meanwhile, the seas climb higher, floodwaters roam wider, evacuations grow increasingly tangled, the cost of insurance jumps and infrastructure decays.
“People want to live here,” said Craig Fugate, a Floridian who served as Florida’s chief emergency manager for two Republican governors and went on to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama. “In too many cases, we have not planned for how to build and live with the hazards we have, so that when storms hit we are not wiping people out financially and putting people at extreme risk. I am not someone who says we should not grow or build, but we are continuing to build in ways that are not sustainable.”
As Houston’s experience in Hurricane Harvey indicated, Florida is not alone as a place with few brakes on building in precarious terrain. But nature is particularly difficult to tame in Florida. There is so much water that it bubbles up from the ground. Engineers have dredged and carved the land, funneling the water here and there, controlling it with gates and gauges, but it still does what it wants. When many cities in Florida flood, which can occur even without rainfall during the highest tides, fish swim in the streets and people wade to their cars.
Many natural buffers, like mangroves, dunes and wetlands, that absorb wind or water have been paved over to make room for supermarkets, schools and shopping centers. Near Naples, Marco Island, where the storm made its second landfall, used to be a mangrove island that helped protect the mainland from winds and storm surges. But it became a lure for resorts and golf courses long ago.
The Florida Everglades became the symbol for shortsighted intentions gone wrong. The Army Corps of Engineers tried to control the water flow through the Everglades to help the sugar industry flourish and to make way for growth. Instead, the corps’s work crippled the river of grass, and half of the Everglades has disappeared. Every corner of Florida has faced the onslaught of growth.
“Southwest Florida has lost nearly half its wetlands,” said Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon Florida. When a storm strikes, he said, “there is no way to easily deal with all that water if the land has become paved with rooftops and parking lots and roads.”
And yet every month, sun lovers from the Northeast, the Midwest, Europe and Latin America pour into the state. Many of the new residents are more affluent, which speaks to the growing income gap and higher cost of living in Florida. People still clamor to live on the coast or near the beach, paying top dollar to live in these increasingly vulnerable areas, including the Florida Keys, which were hit hard during Hurricane Irma.
And for all the growing sophistication of alerting people to monster storms, as the state’s population grows, so do the difficulties of evacuating 21 million people from a long peninsula with only two major highways heading north.
“When do we cross this point that the homes along the coast are no longer valuable because they’re really losing their marketability?” wondered Cary Glickstein, the mayor of Delray Beach in South Florida. “We are certainly not there yet. We are not even close to it.”