Why the Florida Fantasy Withstands Reality

Cape Coral is a microcosm of Florida’s worst impulse: selling dream homes in a hurricane-prone flood zone. But people still want them.

A black-and-white photo of a sign outside a mall in Cape Coral, Florida.
Scott McIntyre / The New York Times / Redux

Five years ago, after Hurricane Irma pummeled Florida’s Gulf Coast, I rode a boat through the canals of Cape Coral, the “Waterfront Wonderland,” America’s fastest-growing city at the time. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze and just a few puffs of clouds, so as I pointed to the blown-out lanais and piles of storm debris, my guide, a snowbird named Brian Tattersall, kept teasing me for missing the point of a magical afternoon. He said I sounded like his northern friends who always told him he was crazy to live in the Florida hurricane zone.

“Come on. Does this feel crazy?” he asked, as we drifted past some palm trees. Cape Coral is a low-lying, pancake-flat spit of exposed former swampland, honeycombed by an astonishing 400 miles of drainage ditches disguised as real-estate amenities, but to Tattersall it was a low-tax subtropical Venice where he could dock his 29-foot Sea Fox in the canal behind his house. When I asked if Irma would slow down the city’s population boom, he scoffed: “No way.”

Then he paused to reconsider. Irma had swerved away at the last minute, and even that near miss had made a big mess. “Look, if we get 15 feet of storm surge, holy shit, that would take out Cape Coral.”

Then he paused to re-reconsider. He sipped his beer in the sunlight.

“Eh, even then, no way.”

On Wednesday, Hurricane Ian hit Cape Coral, and although the worst storm surge was probably closer to 11 feet, it inundated almost the entire city and ravaged its infrastructure. The municipal water system has been shut down. The power is still out. It’s too early to assess the damage, but the footage from storm-bludgeoned neighborhoods is scary.

Ian has brought some new attention to the story I wrote for Politico Magazine after my visit to Cape Coral in 2017, “The Boomtown That Shouldn’t Exist.” The subtitle warned: “One big storm could wipe it off the map.” The gist was that Cape Coral was an unsustainable paradise, and that it also represented the future of the Florida dream in an age of rising seas and extreme weather, “the least natural, worst-planned, craziest-growing piece of an unnatural, badly planned, crazy-growing state.” I wrote that it was fair to ask “what the hell 20 million Americans are doing in a flood-prone, storm-battered peninsula that was once the nation’s last unpopulated frontier,” because the bill for decades of Florida lies, greed, and myopia would eventually come due.

Now it has, with Ian expected to displace Irma as Florida’s costliest storm. I’m sad for the victims. I’m angry at the state’s venal and shortsighted politicians. But I’m also worried about the future, because I suspect Brian Tattersall was right. Once the debris gets cleared, people will keep flocking to Cape Coral, and to Florida. And Mother Nature will still bat last.

The tragedy of Ian ought to help more Floridians understand the consequences of environmental destruction, perfunctory planning, and climate denial. I’ve been banging my spoon on my high chair about humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature in Florida ever since I wrote a book about it in 2006; I even wrote a premature requiem for the state before Irma. But the left-leaning social-media warriors who have used my work to chide Floridians for living in harm’s way, aside from being obnoxious and heartless, have missed half my point.

After all, I’m a Floridian in harm’s way too. The allure of the Sunshine State is not a myth invented by Governor Ron DeSantis. It’s true that our disasters would be less disastrous if more people understood why this unsustainable paradise is unsustainable, but our politics might be less disastrous if more people understood why it still feels like paradise.

I used Cape Coral as my Exhibit A because it’s a microcosm of Florida’s follies: a vulnerable peninsula jutting off the vulnerable peninsula, an extreme example of an unsustainable paradise built with lies on layaway. Maybe it’s unnecessary to rehash the dark side of the Florida dream while Ian is still a present-tense catastrophe, but because this state has a flair for forgetting after storms pass, here’s a quick recap.

In its natural state, most of Florida was such a soggy mush of low-lying marshes that mapmakers couldn’t decide whether to draw it as land or water. The Spaniards who arrived in the 16th century told their king the peninsula was “liable to overflow, and of no use,” and white people mostly stayed away until the U.S. Army chased the Seminole Indians into the Everglades in the 19th century. The soldiers forced to slog through its mosquito-infested bogs described it as a “hideous,” “diabolical,” “repulsive,” “pestilential,” “God-abandoned” hellhole.

The story of Florida in the 20th century is about dreamers and schemers trying to get rid of all that water and drain the swamp. Eventually, they mostly succeeded, transforming a remote wilderness into a sprawling megalopolis, replacing millions of acres of wetlands with strip malls and golf courses and sprawling subdivisions, building the Palmetto and Sawgrass Expressways where palmettos and sawgrass used to be. But their war on nature had brutal environmental costs. They wiped out half the Everglades and discombobulated the other half. They destroyed mangrove swamps and other natural flood protections. They threw nature out of whack, which is why Florida routinely yo-yos between structural droughts and vicious floods, and why so many of its bays and lakes and reefs and aquifers are collapsing.

Cape Coral is Florida on steroids, a comically artificial landscape featuring seven perfectly rectangular man-made islands and eight perfectly square man-made lakes. It was built by two shady brothers who made their fortunes selling scammy anti-baldness tonics, then used their talent for flimflam to sell inaccessible swampland to suckers. They didn’t bother to build sewers or parks or other infrastructure, except all those eco-destructive plumbing canals designed to dry out the floodplain and create waterfront property along their banks. It was just a real-estate play, a quarter acre in middle-class heaven for $20 down and $20 a month, and the suckers bought it, even after the hucksters got busted for fraud.

Environmental destruction is bad, especially for a state whose natural resources are its best selling point, and it’s a shame that the drive to tame nature that carved Cape Coral out of a swamp has been so prevalent in Florida. Fraud is also bad, and also synonymous with a state whose real-estate market has been a punch line for a century. “You can even get stucco,” the land-swindler played by Groucho Marx quipped in Cocoanuts. “Oh, how you can get stuck-oh!”

But it’s important to remember that Cape Coral’s hucksters and suckers were ultimately right. Cape Coral now has 200,000 residents. It’s got no colleges, tourist attractions, or major industries—its top employers are its government, hospital, and supermarkets—but not only is it still one of America’s fastest-growing cities, it’s projected to remain in the top five for decades to come. It’s a triumph of Lies That Came True, which was the title of a 1983 memoir by a Cape Coral pioneer, and could be the state motto.

For too long, too much of the Florida economy has been an ecological Ponzi scheme that depends on bringing in 1,000 new residents a day, including the mortgage brokers and drywall installers and landscapers whose livelihoods depend on bringing 1,000 more new residents the next day. There’s no culture of long-term planning or investing, no ethic of limits or responsibility or risk management. Florida has always been about now, mine, more.

That’s all bad, too, and this week, Mother Nature registered an objection. But that doesn’t mean we’ll learn our lesson.

One thing I’ve learned in my years of whining about Florida’s unsustainable trajectory in the climate era is that most Floridians don’t care. Some certainly do, including some ordinary citizens who get radicalized when their sparkling estuary gets overrun by foul-smelling guacamole glop or they can’t breathe at the beach. But most don’t, especially if they’re new to Florida, especially if they’re newly retired to Florida. They’re here to enjoy the warm weather in a state with no income tax, not to build a better tomorrow for future generations.

I’m looking out my window right now at another beautiful sunny day in South Florida. I never really understood until I moved here that winter was optional. Some people don’t care for the heat and humidity, especially now that climate change is ratcheting up the heat, and it’s no fun to be in the path of a deadly hurricane. Usually, though, we’re not. Usually, it’s just nice. It’s certainly way nicer than Boston or Brooklyn, or Michigan or Minnesota, in the winter.

That’s why people keep coming, and it’s interesting to see where they’re going. America’s fastest-growing metro over the past decade was not Cape Coral but the Villages, the ultra-Republican retirement community in Central Florida. In 2016, nine of the 20 fastest-growing metros were in Florida, and eight of them voted for Donald Trump. That trend explains why Florida, long considered the ultimate swing state, is now a Republican state.

The day after DeSantis was first sworn into Congress in 2013, he voted against federal aid for the victims of Superstorm Sandy. Now he’s pushing for federal aid for the victims of Ian, which is a very Florida form of hypocrisy. And DeSantis has risen to national prominence behind a very Florida form of now-mine-more messaging, proclaiming this the “free state” of Florida, where you don’t have to worry about public-health scolds telling you to wear a mask or get a vaccine, or pointy-headed planners telling you where to build your house or when to water your lawn. He’s selling irresponsibility as a virtue. Worrying about consequences is for losers.

Yes, sometimes the bill comes due. But it’s not clear to what extent the people of Florida, other than the storm’s immediate victims, will have to pay it. My insurer went bankrupt last month, one of six to go under in Florida this year, and the state took over my policy, as it surely did for thousands of Floridians who will now file claims. But the Republican leaders who have assumed for the past quarter century that the feds will bail us out after the Big One were probably right. We’ve gotten too big to fail.

I want to be clear: This is all bad, and Florida doesn’t have to be like this. I ended my Cape Coral story with a trip to Babcock Ranch, a new solar-powered, smart-growth, flood-protected community a half-hour inland that was conceived as Florida’s sustainable city of the future. I checked in with the developer, Syd Kitson, after Babcock took a direct hit from Ian, and he had good news: “The power and internet never went off, no flooding and minimal damage,” Kitson wrote. “It’s everything you and I talked about several years ago.”

But the way things ought to be is not always the way things are. Sunshine, low taxes, and freedom from consequences can be a compelling vision, especially for the old and cold, and it’s working for Florida’s Republicans just as it worked for Cape Coral’s developers. The next wave of newcomers won’t let concerns about boil-water orders or insurance crises deter them. The Florida growth machine has outlasted a lot of killer storms, and it will outlast this one too. We ignored what was coming, and we’ll forget what came.

It would be nice if Cape Coral and the rest of the Gulf Coast could, to borrow a phrase from national Democrats, build back better. But nothing will stop it from building back.