A century back, the coastline of southwest Florida was a maze of swamps and shoals, prone to recurrent flooding and just about impossible to navigate by boat. These days, the region is house to a lot more than 2 million persons, and about the earlier ten years it has ranked as one particular of the fastest-developing parts of the region. Quite a few of all those new households sit mere toes from the ocean, surrounded by canals that movement to the Gulf of Mexico.

When Hurricane Ian struck the region on Wednesday, its 150-mile-for every-hour winds and severe storm surge smashed hundreds of structures to bits, flooded homes, and tossed all around boats and mobile properties. Towns which includes Fort Myers and Port Charlotte ended up destroyed in a make any difference of several hours.

These vulnerable towns only exist thanks to the audacious maneuvers of real estate developers, who manipulated coastal and riverine ecosystems to produce useful land above the class of the 20th century. These attempts to tame the forces of character by tearing out mangroves and draining swamps had disastrous environmental repercussions, but they also allowed for the design of tens of 1000’s of residences, appropriate in the water’s route.

“What this is essentially exhibiting us is that builders, if there is income to be produced, they will develop it,” stated Stephen Strader, an affiliate professor at Villanova College who scientific studies the societal forces powering disasters. “You have a normal wetland marsh … the principal perform of individuals areas is to protect the inland regions from factors like storm surge. You are developing on prime of it, you’re changing it with subdivisions and homes. What do we expect to see?”

A guy wades by way of floodwaters from Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on September 29.
RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP by means of Getty Photos

The root of southwest Florida’s vulnerability is a enhancement technique named dredge-and-fill: Builders dug up land from the base of rivers and swamps, then piled it up right until it rose out of the drinking water, making solid synthetic land in which there had as soon as been only moist mud.

This kind of dredging began properly prior to Florida’s postwar serious estate boom, when the state’s agriculture and phosphate mining industries required to manage inland flooding, create navigable pathways for boats, and slice paths for rainwater to circulation into the Gulf of Mexico. As a final result of these initiatives, the move of h2o to the coasts from Florida’s soggy inland became tame and predictable, and the channels gave boats immediate accessibility to the Gulf of Mexico. Developers started to see the southwest coastline as a best put for retirees and troopers returning from Planet War II to settle down — they just had to build properties for them initial. They carved existing swamps into a dense community of so-referred to as finger canals, then utilised the excess dust to elevate the remaining land, permitting the h2o in.

“Dredge-and-fill grew to become the recognized process to meet up with the expanding postwar demand from customers for waterfront housing,” wrote three historians in a 2002 historical study of southwest Florida’s waterways.

The most notorious developer to use this method was Gulf American, a business established in the 1950s by two scamming brothers named Leonard and Jack Rosen who experienced also bought televisions and cures for baldness. Gulf American acquired a massive plot of land throughout the river from Fort Myers, cut hundreds of canals in it, and offered items of it by mail buy to retirees and returning veterans up north. The consequence was Cape Coral, which the writer Michael Grunwald when referred to as “a boomtown that shouldn’t exist.”

“Though the principal objective was to produce land for property building, the use of dredge-and-fill generated a suburban landscape of synthetic canals, waterways and basins,” wrote the authors of the 2002 survey. “The canals served a quantity of applications, which include drainage, generation of waterfront residence as an enhancement for revenue, obtain to open up h2o for boating, and a source of fill materials for the development of developable lots.”

Canals St. Petersburg Florida Hurricane Ian
Canals wind their way as a result of a neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1967.
Charles E. Rotkin/Corbis/VCG through Getty Visuals

The 3 Mackle brothers, who owned a different notable business called Standard Growth Company, adopted a comparable approach on other sections of Florida’s Gulf Coastline. They developed more than a dozen communities throughout the point out, together with Port Charlotte, North Port, and Marco Island, all of which fell inside Ian’s radius as it created landfall on Wednesday. In all these instances, growth included carving up coastal swampland, making a canal network to drain out excessive h2o, and creating houses on the land that remained. 

“It’s just the same purpose why golfing programs have tons of water dangers — the large holes that they dig out to set soil on the land and make the fairways become lakes,” reported Strader. “And now everybody’s got a waterfront house … but it also suggests you get far more drinking water intrusion.”

Backlash in excess of the environmental impacts of dredge-and-fill at some point led to limitations on the procedure in the 1970s. The community grew outraged at the plan of chemicals and human waste managing off from household canal techniques into the ocean. That didn’t halt new arrivals from dashing into canalside developments like Cape Coral, which grew by 25 p.c involving 2010 and 2019. It assisted, of class, that southwest Florida observed extremely number of hurricanes in excess of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Only three hurricanes have built landfall in the region considering that 1960 (for the duration of which time the sea level off Fort Myers has risen about 8 inches), and none of them triggered catastrophic flooding.

Hurricane Ian introduced that reprieve to an conclude, bringing dwelling the implications of risky advancement in the exact way Hurricane Ida brought home the outcomes of coastal erosion last September. When Hurricane Ida rampaged via the Louisiana coastline, it drew interest to the deterioration of that state’s coastal wetlands, which had extensive acted as a buffer in opposition to storm surge. In southwest Florida, some thing distinct has happened: Not only did builders distinct the wetlands, but they also pushed ideal out to the water’s edge, leaving just inches of area among houses and the Gulf’s waters. With sea amounts rising and catastrophic storms rising more frequent, the era of continuous flooding has begun again — this time with tens of millions much more men and women in the way.

By Ellie