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Flooding from Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida.

A century ago, the coast of southwest Florida was a maze of swamps and shoals, prone to frequent flooding and almost impossible to navigate by boat. These days, the region is home to more than 2 million people, and over the past decade it has ranked as one of the fastest-growing parts of the country. Many of those new homes sit mere feet from the ocean, surrounded by canals that flow to the Gulf of Mexico.

When Hurricane Ian struck the region on Wednesday, its 150-mile-per-hour winds and extreme storm surge smashed hundreds of buildings to bits, flooded houses, and tossed around boats and mobile homes. Cities including Fort Myers and Port Charlotte were destroyed in a matter of hours.

These vulnerable cities only exist thanks to the audacious maneuvers of real estate developers, who manipulated coastal and riverine ecosystems to create valuable land over the course of the 20th century. These attempts to tame the forces of nature by tearing out mangroves and draining swamps had disastrous environmental consequences, but they also allowed for the construction of tens of thousands of homes, right in the water’s path.

“What this is basically showing us... Read more

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