Southwest Florida's Overdevelopment Made Ian WorseRoundup
tags: Florida, disasters, hurricanes, environment, real estate
Zeke Baker is an assistant professor of sociology at Sonoma State University. He studies environmental politics, the social impacts of weather and climate change and the history of climate science.
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.