A century ago, the coast of southwestern Florida was a maze of swamps and shoals, prone to frequent flooding and almost impossible to navigate by boat. These days, the region is home to more than 2 million people, and for the past decade it has ranked as one of the fastest growing parts of the country. Many of those new homes sit just feet from the ocean, surrounded by canals that empty into the Gulf of Mexico.
When Hurricane Ian hit the region on Wednesdayits 150-mile-per-hour winds and extreme storm surge crushed hundreds of buildings in pieces, flooded housesY thrown around the boats and mobile homes. Cities like Fort Myers and Port Charlotte were destroyed in a matter of hours.
These vulnerable cities only exist thanks to the audacious maneuvers of real estate developers, who manipulated coastal and river ecosystems to create valuable land throughout the 20th century. These attempts to tame the forces of nature by uprooting mangroves and draining swamps had disastrous environmental consequences, but they also allowed the construction of tens of thousands of homes, right in the path of the water.
“What this basically shows us is that developers, if there is money to be made, they will develop it,” said Stephen Strader, an associate professor at Villanova University who studies the social forces behind disasters. “You have a natural wetland swamp…the main function of those regions is to protect inland areas from things like storm surge. You’re building on top of it, you’re replacing it with subdivisions and houses. What do we hope to see?
At the root of Southwest Florida’s vulnerability is a development technique called dredge-and-fill: developers excavated soil from the bottoms of rivers and swamps, then piled it up until it came out of the water, creating solid artificial soil where once there was only wet mud. .
This type of dredging began long before Florida’s postwar housing boom, when the state’s agricultural and phosphate mining industries wanted to control inland flooding, create waterways for ships, and open paths for rainwater to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of these efforts, the flow of water toward the coasts from Florida’s sodden interior became tame and predictable, and the canals gave ships direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Developers began to see the Southwest Coast as a perfect place for retirees and soldiers returning from World War II to settle; first, they just had to build houses for themselves. They carved out the existing swamps into a dense network of so-called finger canals, then used the extra soil to raise the remaining land, letting in water.
“Dredge and fill became the established method of meeting the growing demand for postwar waterfront housing,” three historians wrote in an article. 2002 landmark study of the waterways of Southwest Florida.
The most infamous developer to use this method was Gulf American, a company founded in the 1950s by two con-artist brothers named Leonard and Jack Rosen, who also sold televisions and baldness cures. Gulf American bought a huge parcel of land across the river from Fort Myers, cut hundreds of canals on it, and sold parts by mail order to retirees and veterans returning north. the result was coral capethat writer Michael Grunwald once called “a boomtown that shouldn’t exist.”
“Although the primary goal was to create land for housing construction, the use of dredge-and-fill produced a suburban landscape of artificial canals, watercourses, and basins,” the authors of the 2002 survey wrote. “The canals served a number of purposes, including drainage, the creation of waterfront properties as an improvement for sales, access to open water for boating, and a source of fill material for the creation of developable lots.”
The three Mackle brothers, owners of another major firm called the General Development Corporation, adopted a similar technique in other sections of Florida’s Gulf Coast. They developed more than a dozen communities across the state, including Port Charlotte, North PortY frame island, all of which fell within Ian’s radius when it made landfall on Wednesday. In all of these cases, development involved dividing the coastal swamps, creating a network of canals to drain excess water, and building houses on the remaining land.
“It’s the same reason golf courses have a lot of water hazards: the big holes they dig to put dirt on the dirt and turn the fairways into lakes,” Strader said. “And now everyone has waterfront property…but it also means there’s more water intrusion.”
Backlash over the environmental impacts of dredging and filling eventually led to restrictions on the process in the 1970s. The public was outraged at the idea of chemicals and human waste running off residential canal systems into the ocean. That didn’t stop newcomers from flocking to canalside developments like Cape Coral, which grew 25 percent between 2010 and 2019. Of course, it helped that Southwest Florida experienced very few hurricanes during the second half of the 20th century. Only three hurricanes have made landfall in the region since 1960 (during which time the sea level off Fort Myers has dropped). raised about eight inches), and none of them caused catastrophic flooding.
Hurricane Ian ended that respite, bringing home the consequences of risky development in the same way that Hurricane Ida brought home the consequences of coastal erosion last September. When Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast, it drew attention to the deterioration of that state’s coastal wetlands, which had long acted as buffers against storm surge. In Southwest Florida, something different happened: Developers not only cleaned up wetlands, but also pushed up to the water’s edge, leaving only inches of space between homes and the Gulf waters. With rising sea levels and catastrophic storms becoming more common, the era of constant flooding has begun again, this time with millions more people on the way.