Tallahassee — A large and growing percentage of Florida’s population are vulnerable to hurricanes due to continued, sprawling development in coastal areas, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Beachfront buildings remove natural barriers, such as dunes and wetlands, causing storm damage to be greater and reach farther inland in developed areas.
In Southwest Florida, more than three-quarters of the population lives within predicted storm surge of a Category 3 hurricane, with nearly 90% of the region’s population in the surge zones for a category 4 or 5 event, according to scientific presentations at the Southwest Florida Symposium, sponsored this July by the Council of Civic Associations.
“Year-by-year, Florida is steadily stripping away its last natural defenses against catastrophic hurricane storm surges,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips. “While Governor Jeb Bush has called for adopting a ‘hurricane mentality,’ Florida is still driven by its real estate mentality.”
Reports on the effects of past hurricanes unanimously cite coastal development as the key factor in the level of damage inflicted:
- In Hurricane Opal, damage was much greater in areas where surge waters were channelized by development;
- In Hurricanes Bonnie and Georges, storm surges and resultant damage was directly correlated to the loss of marshes and underbrush to absorb stormwaters; and
- In Hurricane Ivan, on the Alabama shore the only areas escaping damage were those where dunes had been retained.
In assessing the lessons from one storm, Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of earth sciences, and Andrew Coburn an associate director of Duke University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, cited an unexpected benefit of endangered species protection:
“One of the most telling events during Ivan was the reduction in property damage along a stretch of Alabama shoreline where two rows of dunes had been retained, all because of an endangered beach mouse. The mice saved buildings by forcing the preservation of the dunes. Elsewhere in Alabama and Florida, dunes were removed to increase the sea view and building sites.”
“By not heeding the experience of past hurricanes, Florida is condemning itself to reap the whirlwind of future storms,” Phillips added. “By not controlling coastal sprawl, we are literally opening the door to disaster.”