California to Florida, the rich are gaming climate change

The buildings? Destroyed.

The streets? Ruined.

The landscape? Scarred, just like the lives of far too many residents who have lost everything.

When a climate change-induced Hurricane Ian recently made landfall in southwest Florida, bringing high winds and flooding to some of the affluent enclaves that had endured previous hurricanes, readers had a question for us.

After all, we had just published a series of columns urging California to reconsider rebuilding any impoverished mountain town that burns down in wildfire, knowing that with climate change the flames will surely strike again in a few years.

Why, these angry readers wanted to know, is urban Florida different from rural California?

“They have hurricane disasters that most likely cost billions of dollars,” it said in an email, “yet they keep building just to experience the same disaster again.”

He’s right. And we agree, it really isn’t much different. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Even President Biden pointed this out last week after taking a helicopter flight to survey the damage in and around Cape Coral and Fort Myers, including the once posh and now devastated barrier island of Sanibel. Hurricane Ian, he declared — a forgiving Gov. Ron DeSantis aside — has “finally ended” the debate over whether there is climate change.

“A lot of people across the country are going through similar disasters,” Biden told reporters, comparing it to states in the west, including California, where wildfires have “burned everything to the ground.”

Some readers saw our reasoning as coastal elites picking on rural mountain people, and we understand that. But we see that high risk is high risk no matter where it is, and that needs to factor into the calculations if and how after to be rebuilt after a disaster.

Consider that as a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Ian made landfall in almost exactly the same place as Hurricane Charley in 2004. However, Ian was twice the size of Charley and sent a record-breaking storm surge through mainland neighborhoods and the Barrier Islands, all located at precarious heights around sea level.

At last count, more than 100 people, ages 19 to 96, but mostly elderly, have died in Florida alone, most by drowning in floodwaters that inundated land on both sides of the Caloosahatchee River. Ian is now the second-deadliest storm to hit the mainland United States in the 21st century, after Hurricane Katrina.

Despite the risks and challenges, and the costs that are sure to run into tens of billions of dollars, many residents want to rebuild.

“The dream of living by the water is strong. I’m here and that’s how I understand it. I’m one of them,” Bill Spikowski, a planning consultant who lives in Fort Myers, told our Times colleague Jenny Jarvie. “I don’t know if anyone is ready to throw it away now. I think it will last as long as it can. And one day, if it can’t, it can’t.”

A similar vibe prevails in Greenville, the small town in the rural northern Sierra Nevada we wrote about in our series after spending several days there over the summer. It was leveled by last year’s Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California history.

The 300 or so people who want to withdraw insist they can safely rebuild. However, climate scientists are skeptical because, as is often the case in high-risk northern California, it’s likely that another major wildfire will scorch Greenville in the years to come as the west heats up and gets hotter and drier.

“Whatever risk tolerances that we collectively decided were acceptable, for whatever reason, and in whatever context, they are no longer valid,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, told us. “Because we built our cities, we built the infrastructure, people built their homes, in a specific historical context that no longer exists.”

A sign is posted outside a home destroyed by the Dixie Fire

A sign is posted in front of the rubble of a home destroyed by the Dixie Fire September 24 in Greenville, California.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In this way, climate change has become the great leveler, devastating red states and blue states alike. But it is the hodgepodge of self-serving public policies in this nation that has increasingly made climate change a cause of injustice.

Most Americans at risk of disaster are not rich. They are middle class and poor, often elderly and people of color looking for a bit of paradise, sometimes without really understanding the risks.

This was definitely the case in Greenville. We met as many residents who had retreated to rural Plumas County for the beauty of it as we did those who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. And even before the Dixie Fire, the city had a dwindling population of about 800, no real economy, and a poverty rate higher than the national average.

Much of the same trends hold true in urban Florida. As a couple of native Ohioans who have spent many summer vacations in the Sunshine State, we can attest to the large number of Midwestern retirees and families who seek to escape the cold six months of the year and pour their limited dollars into timeshares and condos.

Sanibel Island is more of an exception.

Before Hurricane Ian hit, the rich owned homes alongside the working class. So beautiful that celebrities have vacationed here, from Denzel Washington to Eric Clapton.

Now the causeway bridge connecting the island to the mainland is gone. And hurricane-proof building codes, put in place since the construction of many older homes now demolished, will increase rebuilding costs. Echoing a displacement cycle we saw after the Northern California wildfires, there is a real possibility that only those of sufficient means will be able to return to their lives on Sanibel.

William Butler, an associate professor at Florida State University who specializes in climate gentrification, predicted that real estate speculators with cash clients could soon pressure uninsured working-class people to sell their waterlogged homes.

If they do and Sanibel becomes unaffordable, “some of the richness of what made this place so cool will be rehabilitated and lost,” Butler said. “It’s just a couple of big houses on stilts overlooking the ocean.”

The rich can afford disasters. You can afford to lose property. But for the average person—especially the average person without insurance—disasters can result in financial devastation and displacement, which is usually offset by public tax dollars.

An aerial view of a damaged dam

A causeway to Sanibel Island in Florida is damaged after Hurricane Ian on September 29.

(Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

It is an untenable model that raises as many economic questions and dilemmas as moral ones. And it adds another layer to fears that poor rural areas will one day be bypassed for reconstruction in favor of wealthy urban areas.

City planners, government officials and developers understand the dangers and likely consequences of building and remodeling in high-risk locations. But in many cases they simply ignore the risks – for votes, for economic development or for other reasons that have nothing to do with a responsible future or even common sense.

Instead, cities and states continue to invest in places where climate change makes it increasingly likely that homes and businesses will disappear from the map.

In California, it is the millions of people who live and move to the urban wilderness due to the long-standing lack of affordable housing in urban areas.

In Florida, hundreds of thousands of people live in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers region — an increase of more than 600% between 1970 and 2020 — while federal researchers project sea levels on the Gulf Coast will rise by as much as 18 inches by 2050.

And yet it is a sign of the times that even in the red state of Florida there is a discussion about whether and how to rebuild after Hurricane Ian.

Senator Marco Rubio recently conceded on ABC News that Sanibel Island will be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. “I think our priority now is to identify the people who wanted to stay on Sanibel but end up having to leave because there’s just no way they can continue living there,” he said.

Florida’s other Republican senator, Rick Scott, spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about building codes and the dangers of manufactured homes.

Biden was even asked to step in, telling reporters, “You have to ask, should you rebuild at this point or that? This is a local decision.”

We know that “managed withdrawal” is largely a political non-starter in Florida, as is much of America. But we’re glad Florida is at least having that conversation — and wish California was, too.

Governor Gavin Newsom, Who does not run for the presidency, recently signed a climate pact with Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, noting at a press event that “we need to do things radically differently.”

He has promised he will launch a “West Coast offensive, not defense” against climate change, and he has taken some impressive steps. But when it comes to the hardest part, discussing how and where we will live in the future, his silence gives us hope he learns a thing or two from Florida. California to Florida, the rich are gaming climate change

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