As unpredictable as hurricanes are, there is often no telling what will happen when they make landfall. Hurricane Ian recently proved this adage when it washed away roads and bridges, leaving utter destruction in its path when it came to shore last Wednesday. And a bad situation was made worse by the greed of past developers who built a plethora of houses right where the storm surge should have flowed.

Raging Winds and Wild Water

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.

Stephen Strader, an associate professor at Villanova University who studies the societal forces behind disasters, said “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.

Category 4 Winds Dredge Up the Past

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 in 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. This sounds like a good idea, until a hurricane comes along and ruins everything.

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.

Moving Forward More Carefully

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 in this region 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.

CoreLogic reports, a real estate firm studying this phenomenon, said “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.

Without drastic and expedient measures, the raging storms will continue to decimate the coastal regions. Although we cannot go back and change the past, we can make efforts to help tame climate change moving forward.

Adnan Zai