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Scientists warned about flooding in the Florida communities hit by Hurricane Ian

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, Hurricane Ian made landfall in one of the fastest-growing places in the nation. Starting in the 1970s, a wave of newly arriving retirees and snowbirds made development across Florida explode. Back then, state leaders put rules in place to try to manage that growth. But over the last decade, state politics have meant some of those rules have disappeared, even as threats from climate change have grown more severe. Jenny Staletovich from WLRN in Miami has been covering these changes. And, Jenny, these '70s-era rules - they were intended to limit growth. Tell me more about how they worked, whether they were designed with hurricanes in mind.

JENNY STALETOVICH, BYLINE: Right. So in the 1970s, Florida actually became something of a model when it began enacting a bunch of laws to manage growth and, you know, protect against those hurricanes. The laws were a response to big retirement and golf communities that developers were building across the state in wetlands and floodplains. And in a state that sits squarely in Hurricane Alley, those are the areas that help buffer damage from storm surge and absorb the flooding.

KELLY: Sure.

STALETOVICH: I talked to Nancy Stroud. She's an attorney and land use planner, and she worked for the state in the '70s, helping write those growth management laws.

NANCY STROUD: It's all connected. You know, if you do good growth management, then you're going to be able to manage some of the bad impacts of climate change. At least some parts of the state really stepped up. But takes a lot of intervention, takes a lot of help from all sectors.

STALETOVICH: And Stroud says the coast got particular attention. That included Charlotte Harbor, where Ian made landfall.

KELLY: So what happened? How did these laws disappear?

STALETOVICH: So there's protections for the Keys, which is the long islands at the tip of Florida, and they're still in place. But for the rest of the state, a developer got that particular law overturned. So the state left it up to communities to voluntarily put limits in place and to help local governments enforce and follow those and other rules. The state then created the Department of Community Affairs in 1985. But developers hated the agency. They said the state was overreaching its authority. So the industry poured a bunch of money into lobbying to change the laws. And when current Florida Senator Rick Scott was running for governor in 2010, he called the growth rules, quote, "a jobs killer." Under his administration, the state did away with the department that enforced the rules and instead created the Department of Economic Opportunity.

KELLY: And just a pause on the timing for a second. You said 2010 - so more than a decade ago but at a time when it was already clear that climate change was making things worse, problems like flooding.

STALETOVICH: Right. That's right. So researchers in Florida were already documenting rising sea levels. And by taking away the state oversight, that left local governments in charge and really paved the way for more growth. It removed checks and balances, and it lessened the environmental protections. And when Rick Scott was governor, he was an open skeptic of climate change. Without managing the growth, Florida's population has grown really quickly in some areas, including the path of Hurricane Ian. And that means more people were put in harm's way than likely would have been if those anti-sprawl measures were still in place.

KELLY: So I'm curious, what does now-Senator Rick Scott say today?

STALETOVICH: Yeah, so we reached out to Scott's office for an interview, but they said he was unavailable. When he was asked Sunday on CBS' "Face The Nation" about rebuilding in such vulnerable areas, he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

RICK SCOTT: I believe these places are places where people want to live. They're beautiful places. So what you really have to do is you have to say, I'm going to build, but I'm going to do it safely. After Andrew in 1992, the state completely changed its building codes, which has dramatically reduced the risk of damage.

STALETOVICH: So we should point out that those building code changes only address wind damage, not storm surge and flooding. And now Scott says the state also needs to invest in mitigating sea level rise and flooding.

KELLY: Fascinating. Jenney Staletovich from member station WLRN in Miami, thanks for your reporting.

STALETOVICH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenny Staletovich
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