The shuttering of a state agency that was created to manage growth in Florida’s vulnerable coastal areas may have helped fuel the steady development that during Hurricane Ian resulted in some of the largest insured property losses in state history.
National Public Radio reported Sunday that Hurricane Ian made landfall north of Fort Myers, Florida, a low-lying area that grew by more than 65,000 people from 2010 to 2020, with thousands of new homes and commercial properties built there. Insured losses from the storm are now projected to reach as much as $67 billion, not including flood insurance losses, according to estimates by property analytics firms. That will be followed by another $20 billion in claims litigation costs in coming years, the Insurance Information Institute told a news outlet.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, some have said. Florida lawmakers in 1985 gave the state government the ability to review risky development in coastal and other vulnerable areas. The Legislature created the state Department of Community Affairs, an agency that had bipartisan support and was designed to help manage growth and land use.
But by 2010, after the depths of the Great Recession, real estate and development interests were bristling at some of restrictions, NPR reported. Rick Scott, the current U.S. senator who was then running for governor, called the agency a “jobs killer.” After his election, lawmakers the next year dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, removing many of the limits on housing and commercial growth, critics said.
The abandoned safeguards helped trigger sizzling growth in areas that were once farms or mining areas, Nancy Stroud, a former attorney for the department, told NPR.
While new building codes in Florida have made some structures more wind-resistant, many buildings were still erected in flood-prone areas, leaving them exposed to storm surge and rising seas and forcing waters onto other properties. Many destroyed properties pre-dated the Department of Community Affairs. But land-use attorney Richard Grosso, who worked to implement the community affairs law in 1985, said that since the agency was dismantled, Florida has put far too many people and public and private investment into vulnerable areas, according to the report.
Despite the breathtaking amount of damage and 89 deaths in Florida left by Ian, Sen. Scott told CBS’ Face the Nation last week that the swamped communities will probably be rebuilt, perhaps in a safer manner. Communities will learn from the storm and improve building codes and develop better flood mitigation programs, he said.