Southwest Florida can build back better—if it chooses

A Naples resident looks out over the pier after Hurricane Donna in 1960. (Photo: Collier Museum)

Oct 12, 2022 by David Silverberg

Even weeks after Hurricane Ian stormed ashore in Lee County it’s still shocking to see the debris and destruction all along the Paradise Coast. New victims are being found and new stories of survival are coming to light.

But as stunning and disorienting and overwhelming as the storm’s impact continues to be, it’s not too soon to begin thinking about building back—better.

A disaster is awful but it’s also an opportunity. With a blank slate and a clear field, post-disaster periods can also be a time for grand plans and sweeping visions.

That may seem illusory as people just find places to live, food to eat and get back basic utilities like electricity and water. But it would be a mistake to overlook the chance to reinvent, reform and uplift communities that seem at the moment to have lost everything.

The rebuilding process can be tricky, though. The inclination of people is to try to rebuild exactly what went before and to do it as quickly as possible. There is always a clash between those who want to restore and those who want to renew and getting to one or the other of those destinations can be a winding and uncertain road.

Southwest Florida is hardly the first place to face such a dilemma.

Past examples

To reach back in time and space to an example long ago and far away, this is what happened in London after the Great Fire of 1666. This immense conflagration leveled much of the ancient city, including its crowded medieval streets and tenements. In its wake, planners and architects like Chistopher Wren envisioned a new, clean and fresh London rebuilt in the latest style and according to rational principles.

However, property owners and landlords wanted to rebuild their buildings on their holdings as quickly as possible and as closely to the previous plans as they could.

What resulted was a jumble of claims and counter-claims that was so chaotic and complex that Londoners created a special court to sort through them all. It took many years to resolve them. Meanwhile, what was rebuilt was a hodge-podge of the old and the new. Christopher Wren never got his sweeping new city but he was able to design and oversee the construction of a new St. Paul’s Cathedral, the one that stands today.

Closer to home in time and location, in 1960 Hurricane Donna swept into Naples, Florida and wiped out what was largely an undistinguished and utilitarian downtown. Naples rebuilt but its retail center, Fifth Avenue, declined in the face of suburban mall competition. In 1992 local merchants brought in Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany to take a holistic view of the town.

“The key to reviving Fifth Avenue is not solely to make it work competently from the point of view of retail,” Duany told the city council, businesspeople and community leaders in 1993. “…Fifth Avenue must be made into a community space, a civic space, a place where neighbors can come to know each other.”

Duany’s detailed planning and vision not only revived Naples’ downtown, it made it a tourist destination and created a consistent, themed urban landscape that supported vibrant retail businesses and restaurants.

This year Naples took its own hit from Hurricane Ian, with storm surge flooding Fifth Avenue. Some stores and restaurants remain closed and some will no doubt not reopen. But it’s also likely that it will revive and attract new businesses—and that revival will build on the planned concept already in place.

Another town that sought to build back better after a disaster was Greensburg, Kansas. On May 4, 2007 an E-5 tornado swept into the small town of 1,400 people, killing 12 and virtually wiping it off the landscape.

The town’s council, meeting in a parking lot, decided that when they rebuilt they would do it in as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly a way possible.

When Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) visited a few days later and learned of the plans, she told them “‘It sounds like you’re going to build it green,’” then-city manager Steve Hewitt recalled to The Washington Post in a 2020 article. “Then we walked out to a press conference and Governor Sebelius said we were going to put the green in Greensburg. We were already talking about it, but she helped brand it and gave energy to what we were trying to do.”

It should be noted that Greensburg was not the home of tree-hugging hippies. It was a conservative Republican town. But city leaders could see a reality beyond political orthodoxy.

As of 2020, according to the Post, “…Greensburg draws 100 percent of its electricity from a wind farm, making it one of a handful of cities in the United States to be powered solely by renewable energy. It now has an energy-efficient school, a medical center, city hall, library and commons, museum and other buildings that save more than $200,000 a year in fuel and electricity costs, according to one federal estimate. The city saves thousands of gallons of water with low-flow toilets and drought-resistance landscaping and, in the evening, its streets glow from LED lighting.”

Greensburg has had its challenges (among others, at one point a wind turbine collapsed in a field). Its green rebuilding was not a panacea and did not result in an economic boom. But it put the town on the world map as a visionary municipality and made it stand out among all the other places on the plains. It also attracted $120 million in disaster relief funds from Kansas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and US Agriculture Department. To this day it remains an American touchstone in disaster recovery and rebuilding.

A coastal Renaissance?

It may seem premature to note this but towns like Sanibel, Matlacha and most of all, Fort Myers Beach now have similar opportunities to plan their rebuilding along rational, visionary lines.

As Greensburg chose to build back better emphasizing energy efficiency and environmentalism, the towns of the Paradise Coast now have an opportunity to be world leaders in climate resilience and protection, rebuilding to take into account climate change and sea level rise—and anticipating its effects.

They have the potential to update their water management practices and systems and have an unparalleled resource in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School.

Like Greensburg, they can also rebuild in an environmentally and energy-efficient way.

Like Naples, the rebuilt towns can be made more esthetically pleasing and pedestrian-friendly, perhaps with waterside boardwalks or promenades and a re-built Times Square in Fort Myers Beach, where “neighbors can come to know each other,” as Duany put it.

To rebuild in this fashion would attract federal support and funding that is sorely needed now. Unfortunately, before Hurricane Ian, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) line-item vetoed $1 million for Times Square renovation in Fort Myers Beach. Perhaps that state money can be restored and increased for rebuilding.

The alternative is to allow a haphazard scramble. In this case, the likely scenario is that developers and speculators swoop in and buy up distressed beach properties from desperate owners for pennies on the dollar. Building commences in a chaotic, uncoordinated way and the result is an unsightly and inefficient mish-mash of commercial and residential buildings.

Better rebuilding will take a lot of discipline, cooperation and coordination. Naples’ 1994 revival was done by the city council, business owners and residents all working together guided by a common vision. To successfully rebuild Hurricane Ian’s communities will take similar unity.

But the time to start doing this is now. The potential rewards justify the effort. If people are willing to be cooperative and patient, Hurricane Ian may be the precursor to a Paradise Coast renaissance—but only if Southwest Floridians are willing to build back better together.

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To learn more about past disasters and responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

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