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Shutting an agency managing sprawl might have put more people in Hurricane Ian's way

"Wrecked shrimp boats and other vessels littered the waterfront on San Carlos Island, Fort Myers Beach, FL, one week after Hurricane Ian made landfall.
Rebecca Blackwell
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AP
"Wrecked shrimp boats and other vessels littered the waterfront on San Carlos Island, Fort Myers Beach, FL, one week after Hurricane Ian made landfall.

When Hurricane Ian roared ashore the Southwest Florida coast last week, it hit one of the fastest growing areas in the nation that's been fueled by sunshine and paved with lax growth management rules.

Since 2010, NPR found, the area's population has rapidly swelled despite the increasing risk from powerful storms like Ian, which devastated some of those growing communities and narrowly missed others.

Now, in the wake of the Category 4 hurricane, state and local leaders have promised to rebuild. Stronger building codes like the kind created after 1992's Hurricane Andrew will make the area more resilient to future storms, they say. But climate and planning experts warn that rebuilding along the crowded coast, following a decade of weakened rules governing development, is what helped create the disaster now unfolding.

Specifically, they point to Florida's decision in 2011 to abolish the state agency that managed risky development even as threats from climate change deepened.

"The result is what we're looking at today," said Richard Grosso, a land use attorney who worked for the state in the 1980s helping implement the 1985 law that created the agency, Florida's Department of Community Affairs. "We put way too many people, way too much private and public investment dollars than we should have, in those vulnerable areas."

Ian's confirmed death toll in Florida has now reached 89, with the number expected to rise. Damages in the state will likely exceed $60 billion, according to an early estimate from Karen Clark & Company, which does not include widespread losses from flooding. That would make it the costliest extreme weather disaster in Florida history.

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The exact path of the surge and the flooding it brought will be calculated in the days to come, as federal agencies survey the damage. The U.S. Geological Survey has already documented record flooding inland along the Peace and Myakka rivers, where more than half the 40 monitors in place recorded new all-time highs. Agency field teams will try to retrieve data from monitors placed in advance of the storm, as well as measure water marks and weed lines to better determine the actual flooding.

Despite increasing warnings about rising sea levels and the risk to coastal development, the Republican-controlled state legislature led the charge a decade ago to do away with the agency governing growth.

During his campaign for governor in 2010, Sen. Rick Scott called the state's growth management rules a jobs killer. At the time, he said he was not convinced that humans were warming the planet and driving climate change, and called for a "lean and limited government."

Scott was not available when NPR requested interviews over the last two weeks to talk about Hurricane Ian and weakened growth management laws. But when asked on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday if vulnerable communities should be rebuilt, Scott said they should.

"They're beautiful places. So what you really have to do is you have to say, I'm going to build, but I'm going to do it safely," he said. "After this, we're going to learn that we're going to have to improve, are continuing to improve our building codes. And we also have to invest in issues such as sea level rise and things like that, flood mitigation programs."

In this aerial view, destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian is shown on October 02, 2022 in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Getty Images
In this aerial view, destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian is shown on October 02, 2022 in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.

"The whole system was pretty much abandoned"

It's impossible to say how much different Florida would look had rules enacted in the 1970s and 80s that led to the creation of the statewide agency remained in place. Many of the places hit hardest predate those modern land use laws.

But Grosso and others believe there would be less of the development that has made hurricanes so dangerous and costly.

"The whole system was pretty much abandoned," said Nancy Stroud, a planner and attorney who worked for the first secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs and helped write the laws. "Places that used to be farms or mining areas are now just sizzling with growth."

The state first began enacting laws to manage growth in the 1970s as development companies like the Mackle Brothers, who developed Marco Island, and later the General Development Corporation, peddled real estate deals in installment plans to winter-weary northerners. To control the retirement communities and sprawling golf developments paving over wetlands and floodplains, the laws gave the state power to provide checks and balances that environmental regulations failed to accomplish.

Regulations "only dealt with individual impacts to that wetland or that water body. They didn't decide what was going to get built where," Grosso said. "That's always been historically a decision that only city and county governments make. And the legislature realized that's really what determines the fate of an area."

John DeGrove, an architect of those early measures and the state's first secretary overseeing growth, understood development could never be stopped. Florida had done too good a job selling itself. But he said Florida needed to stop giving away its limited resources.

To find a middle ground, the state needed "a growth management system that has some teeth, that is well-funded, but that is favorable to all the key stakeholders," Grove said in a 2001 interview. He called it a potential win-win for the state and developers.

The state paid particular attention to the coast and important resources like wetlands that absorb flooding and recharge water supplies, especially ones under development pressure. Areas like the Florida Keys and Green Swamp west of Disney World, were too risky to be left to local control.

Members of Virginia Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue comb through the wreckage on Fort Myers Beach.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Members of Virginia Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue comb through the wreckage on Fort Myers Beach.

Managing Growth Was Once Bipartisan

Under one of the new restrictive laws, both were designated areas of critical concern. For the Keys, an 180-mile long chain of islands, that included a cap on building to ensure safe hurricane evacuations along a single highway that connected the islands.

Charlotte Harbor, where Ian made landfall, was also targeted for the designation, DeGrove wrote in 1988. But before it could be put in place, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the law saying it violated the state constitution for delegating legislative power. Rather than fight the case, the state pivoted to voluntary measures.

To help with "local reluctance" over complying with the critical areas and other rules, the early planners pushed to create the statewide growth management agency.

"We tried to put a state agency in charge to make sure that what one local government did wasn't hurting people in other local governments that didn't vote for those people," Grosso said. "That was the concept."

It was a concept that was bipartisan at the time. One of its biggest champions was Nathaniel Reed, a Republican who helped write the Endangered Species Act under Richard Nixon.

Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, the Tampa mayor who succeeded both Sen. Bob Graham and Gov. Reuben Askew, both Democrats, continued to aggressively enforce growth rules.

"He was a big city mayor. He knew the realities of good and bad development," Grosso said

But developers disliked the checks and balances, such as limits on projects tied to road capacity and building big developments in rural areas where land was cheaper. They especially bristled over the requirement that developers pay for schools, police, roads and the other services that new housing would require.

"That was a huge effort to make sure that development, and developers, paid for the costs of growth," Stroud said. "That was, in fact, one of the ways that the conflict about growth management really started heating up."

On the heels of the 2008 recession, Scott's campaign for job growth was an easy sell. With backing from the real estate development industry, Scott and Republican state lawmakers quickly dismantled the agency in 2011, despite warnings about the increasing risks from climate change.

The move hurt local governments trying to enact restrictions to protect themselves from climate impacts and that now faced a hostile state, said Randy Parkinson, a Florida International University geologist who worked with local governments to assess climate impacts in community growth plans. In 2010, he was helping tiny Satellite Beach on Florida's Atlantic coast plan for rising seas.

"The concern at that time was the politics," he said. "The concern was, well, 'We can't put climate change in there.' "

In places, including Lee County, growth has also sometimes outpaced people's ability to deal with the risks of storm damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been updating flood maps across Florida to account for sea level rise and increased flooding. That would require many more property owners to obtain flood insurance. But the process has been slow.

New flood maps for unincorporated Lee County were just approved in June. They would significantly expand neighborhoods that need flood insurance on Pine Island and near the Caloosahatchee River hit hardest by Ian. But they don't take effect until Nov. 1.

Sea level rise is also starting to overwhelm natural barriers that fight hurricanes around Charlotte Harbor, like the shallow mangrove-lined bay east of Fort Myers Beach where Ian flattened businesses and homes. It became the state's first aquatic preserve in the 1960s. But Parkinson said the growth and spread of the bay's mangroves aren't keeping up with sea level rise. The hardy storm barrier to storms will likely become open water in the next 40 years, he said.

"So now you lose the barriers and that just transfers the brunt of the attack," onto communities he said.

After living through Hurricane Andrew and moving away from low-lying South Florida, Parkinson thinks rebuilding in areas expected to become even more vulnerable is a bad idea.

"After Andrew, I couldn't find my car. That was bad. But this? I look at the storm surge and my jaw just drops," he said. "I guess we're just going to build back better. That's what I heard. I think that's impossible."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 8, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
A photo caption in an earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed storm damage on San Carlos Island to Hurricane Irma. The damage was caused by Hurricane Ian.
Jenny Staletovich
Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
Nick Underwood