By Craig Pittman
Jesus had some good advice for Florida developers: Don’t build a house on the sand. It won’t stand up when a storm hits.
“The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash,” the Son of God said in Matthew 7:27
But Florida developers don’t like anyone telling them what to do, not even a deity with the power to walk on water. So, they have been building houses, condos, and a lot of other stuff on our sandy barrier islands for more than a century.
If you saw the pictures of all the beach communities devastated by Hurricane Ian, you saw a lot of buildings that “fell with a great crash.” Yet a lot of the people who survived the storm are vowing to build back better, build back stronger, and build back in the exact same place they got wiped out before.
I’m not here to mock the survivors and their determination not to be beaten by adversity. What I am going to do is suggest that some places that held buildings were not the appropriate places to put human dwellings — not in a hurricane-prone state where mandatory evacuation is a drill we should all know by heart.
You know how that happened, though, don’t you?
Builders trying to exploit a hot housing market for big profits ran roughshod over common-sense regulations intended to protect the public. Meanwhile, our elected officials went along with whatever the developers wanted.
A good example of what I am talking about is found in the recent case of Joanne and Bill Semmer vs. Lee County and Southern Comfort Storage.
The case, Joanne Semmer told me this week, started about six years ago and involved a 7.58 acre property that contained a boat storage warehouse called Southern Comfort. The area had long been a working waterfront dominated by the seafood and shrimping industry.
But developers wanted to replace the warehouse with a marina, townhouses, and a high-rise resort called Bay Harbour, promising it would boost everyone’s property values. To do that, however, the developers needed a change in the county’s comprehensive plan for future growth.
Turns out, though, that the developers had a problem. The hurricane evacuation time for that area was already bad, and the occupants of Bay Harbour’s 100-foot-tall tower would make it worse.
“I said, ‘That’s not an appropriate place to put a high rise,’” said Semmer, whose home sits 140 feet from the Southern Comfort warehouse, and whose brother Bill owns property nearby.
The county commissioners gave the comp plan change their blessing anyway. Then, after a hearing in Tallahassee, so did Gov. Ron DeSantis and the three elected officials who make up the Florida Cabinet: Attorney General Ashley Moody, CFO Jimmy Patronis, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Where, you ask, is Southern Comfort? On San Carlos Island in unincorporated Fort Myers Beach. It’s one of the places that Hurricane Ian all but obliterated with a roaring storm surge of more than 6 feet.
The Bay Harbour site is at a busy intersection where vehicles line up to cross over the Matanzas Pass Bridge to the mainland. It’s the same route residents of Estero Island use to evacuate — in other words, a crucial spot.
Semmer’s home across the street was one of the many places on Fort Myers Beach that Ian nearly washed away. When I called her, she was exhausted from trying to deal with all of her losses. She said things would have been far, far worse if Bay Harbour had been built before Ian hit.
If I were the elected officials who gave Bay Harbour the green light, I wouldn’t feel too Southern Comfortable about that decision now.
Four days, not one
Lee County officials waited to issue a mandatory evacuation order for coastal areas until 7 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27 — a little more than 24 hours before Ian ripped up everything in sight after making landfall on Wednesday, Sept. 28. A lot of people said that wasn’t nearly enough time to for everyone to flee a storm just a shade less powerful than a Category 5.
If you watched the proliferation of post-hurricane news, you probably saw at least one of the reports about our thin-skinned Outrager-in-Chief, Gov DeSantis, batting away complaints about the evacuation time.
“They were following the weather track and they had to make decisions based on that,” he said in an interview with CNN that, as usual, turned into him heaping abuse on the reporter who dared to question him. “But you know, [at] 72 hours, they weren’t even in the cone.”
Actually, part of Lee County was always in the cone of uncertainty — an especially apt term in Ian’s case. But that’s not my point.
Evacuations are not supposed to be like passengers fighting over space in the lifeboats as the Titanic sinks beneath the waves. They’re supposed to go in a very orderly series of steps.
“Governments have to plan how to get all these people out of here,” explained Ralf Brookes, who represented Semmer in her and her brother’s case against Bay Harbour.
Florida used to have a statewide planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs. That agency required counties to ensure evacuation times from flood-prone zones known as Coastal High Hazard Areas would be less than a day, Brookes pointed out. The law said the development density in those areas should not make the evacuees need more than 16 hours to get away from a Category 5 storm.
But when Rick “Look at My Navy Hat, Not My Hands” Scott was governor, he and the Legislature killed that planning agency as dead as if Michael Corleone had called for the hit. They claimed that by trying to steer development away from places it shouldn’t occur, the agency was ruining Florida’s economy.
In the 12 years since that unjustifiable homicide, local governments have been allowing more and more development in those Coastal High Hazard Areas. Thus, evacuation times have been getting worse.
How bad are they now? According to Lee County Attorney Amanda Swindle, the current evacuation time for Lee County in case of a Category 5 hurricane isn’t the legally required 16 hours but 96 hours.
Yes, I said 96. As in the number of tears Question Mark and Mysterians sang about.
“It is a long way off” from what the law requires, Swindle admitted.
That’s four days — or about three more than the residents got as Ian veered their way.
And Lee is far from the only county that has allowed too much development to pile up in a place where people can’t easily outrun a storm.
A four-day evacuation time. Think about that in the context of Ian. That’s pretty much the same as saying: “We’re never going to get everyone clear. Some people will die.”
After dropping that particular truth bomb at the August Cabinet meeting, Swindle noted that Lee had a lot of company in its rapidly sinking boat.
“Out of 45 counties in Florida’s coastal areas, only nine of those counties” can meet the 16-hour standard, she told the state’s top officials, who, for some reason, did not scream in dismay and swoon.
I did the math (don’t laugh, I occasionally remember how a calculator works): 80 percent of the state’s coastal residents live in places where there’s too much development for them to safely flee a storm.
That’s pretty dire. It sounds like a lot of local governments have been gambling with people’s lives to benefit the builders who fuel their campaigns. It’s almost as if they care more about money than their own voters.
In fact, it sounds like maaaaaybe the coastal counties should stop letting developers pack more residents into those death tra — er, excuse me, condos, townhomes, etc.
Instead of saying something like that, though, Swindle told the Cabinet how wonderful it was that there’s a loophole in the state’s 16-hour law.
“Otherwise, development in these counties would essentially be held hostage, unable to develop or redevelop their property until the county can somehow magically meet those evacuation times,” she said with a smile.
Thanks to this loophole, she said, Lee had allowed a lot of other projects to be built in the coastal high hazard area that made the evacuation time so bad. Nobody had bothered to challenge any before Bay Harbour came along, she said.
She then went on to claim — with a straight face — that Bay Harbour constitutes “smart coastal growth.”
To me, it sounded about as smart as Herschel Walker debating his bathroom mirror.
Get out of jail free
How did the Lee County Commission get around the law in approving Bar Harbour’s change to their comprehensive growth plan?
The same way state and federal wetlands permitters get around the laws that are supposed to protect wetlands: By promising to make up for any problems.
It’s called “mitigation,” and it’s the Get Out of Jail Free card of property development in Florida.
“Listen,” builders say, “I’m destroying 100 acres of wetlands, but through mitigation I’ll make up for the damage. I’ll preserve some land elsewhere or pull weeds from another swamp or write a check to someone in the mitigation business.”
Then they get their permit, even though the “mitigation” rarely makes up for the wetlands that are lost.
In the case of hurricane evacuation, the loophole in state law says developers can get around that evacuation-time standard by offering to mitigate whatever they have added to the time.
They can do that by building new storm shelters, donating land for storm shelters, or donating money for storm shelters. In other words, it’s all about shelters, not about making it any easier to get off the island. It just gives people more places they can go.
It’s as if your child said, “I’m hungry” and you give him a plate with nothing on it. You’ve equated an empty gesture with one that actually deals with the problem.
Just like John D. MacDonald
Here’s the reason the governor and Cabinet got involved in this dispute: An administrative law judge named Suzanne Van Wyck listened to Semmer’s objections to the comprehensive plan change, as argued by Brookes. Then she dismissed most of them.
But she ruled that Semmer was right about one thing. The judge agreed that the development would add to an already overburdened hurricane evacuations system, in violation of state law. She said that the comp plan change could stand only if the developer helped Lee County get its evacuation time down to 16 hours. That would be the only possible mitigation.
For some reason, the Lee County commissioners didn’t welcome someone being ordered to help them get their evacuation problem fixed. Instead, they appealed the case to the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Administration Commission.
I called up my friend Charlie Whitehead, a former Fort Myers newspaper reporter who became a community activist. He’s always had a reputation for telling it like it T-I-IS. He’s also one of Semmer’s neighbors. He, too, was totting up all that he’d lost in Ian’s powerful surge.
“The reason the evacuation times are so bad is that the Lee County Commission never met a developer they didn’t like,” Whitehead growled. “Our commissioners believe what’s good for the developers is good for Lee County.”
We also talked about the timing of the Cabinet hearing one month before Ian.
“It’s just so Florida,” Whitehead said with a chuckle, “that they did this right before a John D. MacDonald-style ‘Condominium’ hurricane hit.”
Dial A Prayer
At the Cabinet meeting, Swindle admitted that the county doesn’t even know how much or what kind of mitigation the commissioners might require for Bay Harbour.
She said the impact might even be so minimal that they wouldn’t require anything at all, a comment that drew a sharp rebuke from Attorney General Moody, who said it wasn’t believable. (I found it completely believable.)
Russell Schropp, representing the developer, told the Cabinet that his client was only willing to make up for what his project added to the evacuation time — not the whole thing. He mentioned building “an on-site shelter” — as if that should solve everything.
Semmer was there to warn everyone that a vote to overturn the judge’s ruling was a vote to put people’s lives at risk. She also said developers all over the state were watching to see how this case turned out.
Later, when I talked to her, Semmer had her own grim suggestion for how the developer could make up for all the new residents: “How many more body bags do they want to buy?”
Ultimately, DeSantis said he was going to side with the county, calling its position “reasonable.” So did the other Cabinet members — including Fried, a Democrat who seldom agrees with DeSantis.
Fried explained that she was voting to toss out the judge’s ruling because “this would be a very bad precedent for any future development in the coastal counties.” You can’t let anything get in the way of building more houses on the sand, despite what Jesus said.
I tried to contact the governor and Cabinet members to ask them if, seeing Ian’s destruction, they now regret voting 4-0 to approve even more construction out there.
None of them got back to me. Gee, I hope I gave them enough time!
Schropp also didn’t return my calls seeking a comment on whether this client — who before the storm sold the land for $18 million — plans to proceed with the development now.
Brookes said he wouldn’t be surprised if Ian just hurries up even more overdevelopment by sweeping away the old working waterfront.
“Are the builders who have always been part of the Florida scene going to buy up all these lots from the insurance companies at bargain basement prices and then build taller building projects with many more times the density?” he asked.
You know the elected officials will be bowing to whatever those developers want. So, here’s my suggestion. They should approve building in those areas that Ian destroyed, but with one requirement. Every single would-be buyer should get a photo showing exactly what that spot looked like after Ian hit.
Then, if they still want to buy there, give them the phone number for Dial-A-Prayer. They’re going to need it, because if another Ian hits, the only one who can help them is Jesus.
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the “Welcome to Florida” podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.
Craig. Good article until your politics intruded.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
The Department of Community Affairs needs an immediate rebirth or a statewide moratorium needs to be implemented. I can dream can’t I?
Funny, the author mentions DeSantis in a negative light, but quotes Biden. YOu can’t tell the wealthier where to build their dream homes that became nightmares the rest of us will be paying for. That’s why so many homeowners insurors are leaving the state, those that remain, expect premiums to increase. Overpopulation is one thing. Global Warming isn’t the problem either. Periodically Mother Nature & Planet Earth cleanses itself. That’s who was flushed in Ft Myers. I mean if you follow the news stories, the overpopulation, Big sugar is polluting the waters in that area just the same. Politicians aren’t the leaders they spin themselves as. People didn’t leave for a myriad of reasons. Some just didn’t think it was going to be them as the victims, others, 20+ months of Biden inflation, could they even leave ? Logistically the last 2 decades and you’d have to leave a week before any storm hit. 3/4 days back in the Clinton era is now a week and Hurricanes that flooded Texas, Louisiana & Florida there aren’t enough lanes or fuel to get far enough away. So people take their chances they are the ones that aren’t the direct hit of landfall, that they are far enough inland, high enough above sea level that a puddle in the swale is as bad as it gets for where they are located.
“Yet a lot of the people who survived the storm are vowing to build back better, build back stronger, and build back in the exact same place they got wiped out before.”
“If you watched the proliferation of post-hurricane news, you probably saw at least one of the reports about our thin-skinned Outrager-in-Chief, Gov DeSantis, batting away complaints about the evacuation time.”
I cannot wait for the day when you finally awaken from your kool aid induced fantasy world and realize that no president can single-handedly control inflation or gas prices. What we are experiencing today is the direct result of the actions taken by the previous administration and it’s MAGA congress that gave everything to the rich when in power and then, through minority rule stopped everything brought forward by the majority party. Why am I willing to bet that you agree with Rick (plead the 5th) Scott that medicare and social security should become “discretionary” programs?
and……Flagler County Planning Board just approved:
The Scenic Cove development on the Barrier Island…..between the Intracoastal Waterway and U.S. Highway A1A (across from the ocean) on 18.69 acres.
I’m curious which 9 counties meet the standard evacuation time?
Linda Morgan says
I was thinking the same thing. More importantly, does Flagler County meet the standard evacuation time. Does anyone know where we can obtain that information?
It’s called “common sense” – local, state, and federal elected officials keep approving the development of these fragile coastal areas and lining their pockets with more money, ignoring the environmental truth of the impact of a hurricane. Anyone can look back on the history of recent hurricanes and see the destruction and monetary expenses put out to rebuild that community; it’s devastating. Say what you want, but the people who have relocated to this area and built the multi-million dollar, three-story beachfront homes are in for a shocking surprise. The barrier island of Flagler County will be leveled if we are in the line of a direct hit from a category five hurricane.
It seems to me that the writer ignores the fact that individuals should be responsible for their own decisions. This is the generation of people who want to blame anyone and every one for their actions. We were in Fort Myers staying at Gulf View and heeded the warnings leaving in plenty of time to get to safety. I saw the video of a woman, son and dog being evacuated from a big house on Sanibel at the expense of those who really needed help. They had the money and means to leave in a safe and orderly way. Many locals, especially the elderly, need assistance. The area has changed a lot in the many years we have been going there and money and greed have allowed these people to build where they please by financially influencing decisions made by politicians (all parties)!
Janet Hagen says
All I hear is “Government is our father, our salvation, etc.” What about the individual? Are owners of beach property too stupid to know the dangers? Do you need government to tell you to evacuate? Give me a break
Swindle…hmm…name speaks volumes. Satellite images the week prior showed Ian larger than all of FL which was notice to anyone to evacuate while there was opportunity. Many employers were too worried about potentially lost business to allow employees to miss work to get their families to a safer location. Employees were afraid of losing their jobs and then were stuck in many cases. Many in Palm Coast were spared but would have evacuated given a chance…
‘“… It’s just so Florida,” Whitehead said with a chuckle, “that they did this right before a John D. MacDonald-style ‘Condominium’ hurricane hit.”…’
Ya know, I really need to get on some kind of “Book of the Month Club.”
Ah yeah, my favorite greedy creeps: developers. Bottom feeders.
What I find the most disturbing is that Flagler County is doing exactly the same thing of over growth and favoring developers. The Hammock is a maritime hammock, which is a huge factor in wearing down storms as they come in. By destroying this maritime hammock, which the commissioners are hell bent on doing, will effect not only the people in the Hammock, but people inland as well.
We depend on our own experience with hurricanes and do not rely on government officials telling us what is best for us.
BTW, some of you do not understand that insurance rates are much higher than average when closer to the shore, so coastal living is more expensive than inland. Also, you must understand that Palm Coast, and other inland communities, are subject to severe flooding. It’s not just a barrier island thing. Insurance is not only raising prices, or leaving the state because of the coastal areas, they are basing their decisions on what is happening all over the state. Also, they are very poorly managed.
Small town Flagler Beach is gone because of greed. Anyone here during 1998 fires? Less people but still took hours to evacuate. No forethought whatsoever just thoughts of how to line their pockets with our money.
Chris McMahon says
After reading this article, I realize that Florida is so doomed. Climate change is going to wipe out most of the population centers.
I know that Floridians hate government intrusion and regulation, but to eliminate an agency that ensures municipalities have a proper evacuation plan is ludicrous.
It all boils down to the fact that the state is hopelessly unprepared for disaster. Government is not going to protect the citizens. Yet I read that most victims are depending on FEMA to bail them out. Sadly, Floridians will learn the hard way. The insurance companies are already pulling out and soon it will be nearly impossible to insure your home. In the near future, some coastal city will be wiped out like Fort Myers Beach and no one is going to come to their rescue.
California doesn’t look anywhere near as dangerous as FL.