Coastal development: a cautionary tale

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Hurricane Ian bulldozed some of the country’s fastest growing counties, laying bare the consequences of largely unfettered coastal development in an age of rapid climate change.

The Category 4 storm made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s southwest coast, where populations have doubled and, in some counties, tripled, since former Gov. Rick Scott (R) removed controls at the state on local development plans a decade ago, as POLITICO’s E&E News reporters. Thomas Frank and Daniel Cusick note in a story today.

Even before that, counties along the state’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts grew rapidly despite warnings that the state was courting disaster and overextended its water supply.

The more coastal development, the more people are at risk. Prior to the storm, experts estimated that 7.2 million homes – worth a combined $1.6 trillion – were at risk of damage from Ian’s flash floods.

“From a long-range planning perspective, much of what we see in Southwest Florida today shouldn’t be there,” said Tim Chapin, professor of urban planning and regional at Florida State University, to Thomas and Daniel.

Development can also alter the physical landscape of a coast, thus impeding its natural ability to mitigate the impact of a storm.

Sandy beaches and mangrove-fringed barrier islands provide a buffer zone between land, bay and ocean, acting as a shield against the impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms. Development can disrupt the natural processes that allow these buffers to absorb the energy of a storm.

In other words, coastal development weakens this first line of defence. And it’s wreaking havoc. A significant proportion of the world’s sandy coastline is eroding at an alarming rate for scientists, and rising sea levels are only exacerbating the problem.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of storms, giving weakened areas less time to recover and grow stronger. Ian, for example, developed as a rare triple threat: high winds of 155 mph, storm surges over 12 feet and over 2 feet of rain that caused massive flooding.

More than 2 million electric customers were without power as of this morning, and it could take weeks to restore it. The hurricane came dangerously close to becoming a Category 5 storm, which starts at 157 mph. Only four hurricanes have hit the country with this force in the last century.

It’s Thursday thanks for listening POLITICO Power Switch. I am your host, Arianna Skibell. Power Switch is brought to you by the journalists behind E&E news and POLITICO Energy. Send your advice, comments, questions to [email protected]

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