Sep 18, 2017

Despite Rising Seas and Bigger Storms, Florida’s Land Rush Endures

Florida
USA
by
Lizette Alvarez
,
The New York Times
A beachfront house in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., that was damaged by Hurricane Irma. Photo: Luke Sharrett, The New York Times
A beachfront house in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., that was damaged by Hurricane Irma. Photo: Luke Sharrett, The New York Times

Florida was built on the seductive delusion that a swamp is a fine place for paradise.

The state’s allure — peddled first by visionaries and hucksters, most famously in the Great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s — is no less potent today.

Only, now there is a twist: Florida is no longer the swampy backwater it once was. It is the nation’s third most populous state, with 21 million people, jutting out precariously into the heart of hurricane alley, amid rising seas, at a time when warming waters have the potential to bring ever stronger storms. And compared with the 1920s, when soggy land was sold by mail, the risks of building here are far better known today. Yet newcomers still flock in and buildings still rise, with everyone seemingly content to double down on a dubious hand.

Florida mostly survived Hurricane Irma, which delivered its most severe damage elsewhere. More than a week later, nearly 400,000 weary, sweat-soaked people in the state remain without power; at least 50 did not survive the storm or its even more dangerous aftermath; and the billions in property damage are still being calculated. Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria rumbles across the Caribbean.

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As Houston’s experience in Hurricane Harvey indicated, Florida is not alone as a place with few brakes on building in precarious terrain. But nature is particularly difficult to tame in Florida. There is so much water that it bubbles up from the ground. Engineers have dredged and carved the land, funneling the water here and there, controlling it with gates and gauges, but it still does what it wants. When many cities in Florida flood, which can occur even without rainfall during the highest tides, fish swim in the streets and people wade to their cars.