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.


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

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Democracy vs. dictatorship: Florida, Super Tuesday and the critical truths that count

03-02-20 Dem candidatesThe Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage in South Carolina on Feb. 25. Since then, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have dropped out.

March 3, 2020, by David Silverberg

As Floridians, we’re left out of the party that is “Super Tuesday” when Democrats in 14 states and one territory (American Samoa) vote for their preferred presidential candidate.

By tonight, and certainly by tomorrow morning, we will likely know the nominee of the Democratic Party.

There will be anger and disappointment—even disgust—among some Florida Democrats no matter who emerges victorious.

Sadly, we have two weeks until Florida Democrats get to vote. The primary falls on St. Patrick’s Day, so prayer and alcohol are two possible consolations. Still, whether your preferred candidate makes it through to receive your vote or you’re faced with an unpalatable choice on March 17, there are important truths—vital, inalienable truths—to keep in mind. And these overshadow all else.

  1. There is only one real issue in this presidential election: Democracy or dictatorship.

For all the media focus on personalities and debate points and the candidates’ records and positions on any other issues, in the end the 2020 election will decide whether the United States will be a free nation of principles, law and institutions ruled by its people or a plaything subject to the tyranny of a single man. All other considerations of the presidential primary process are subordinate to that one great truth and consequence.

  1. Every Democratic candidate will work to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution.

For all their differences of personality or position, all Democratic candidates can be counted upon to strive to fulfill the presidential oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Donald J. Trump, who governs as though he’s unaware that there’s a Constitution at all and routinely violates its provisions, was impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. He’s a tyrant in his heart as well as in his actions and his rule will become more tyrannical if it continues.

  1. All Democratic candidates will support the rule of law and fair and equal justice for all.

This seems so plain and obvious and self-evident but it is not. Donald J. Trump clearly believes he is above all laws and acts accordingly. He only escaped removal through a gravely flawed and deliberately biased trial in the Senate. He has pardoned, excused and commuted punishment for criminals and miscreants of all stripes and natures as long as they’re his friends and sycophants.

Any Democratic candidate will uphold the rule of law and will take seriously the oath to enforce it equally, justly and vigorously—and will submit to the laws on the books like any other citizen.

  1. All Democratic candidates will support the human rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Again, it would have been unthinkable in the history of the United States but we must worry about a president who attacks rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, chief among them those of the 1st Amendment: freedom of speech, the press, worship and the right to petition government. In 2020, those rights and all others are at risk. Donald J. Trump threatens all of them—and every other human right and amendment in the Constitution.

Far from the United States pursuing a mission abroad to ensure the human rights of all people, in 2020 American citizens must ensure that they preserve those inherent rights in their hearts and heartland. Any and every Democratic candidate stands to preserve and protect them.

  1. Truth matters to all the Democratic candidates.

President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” But Donald J. Trump turns that on its head. His philosophy might be expressed as: “You can fool all the people all the time and when you can’t you should try—and that includes fooling yourself.”

In politics there are inevitably shadings of truth and attempts to spin events to one’s advantage. But the United States has never before had a president who lies so instinctively, so inherently and so incessantly. He not only lies to the nation and the world but to himself and then believes his own lies. It is safe to say that any Democratic candidate will show a decent respect for the truth and objective reality and will act on the facts accordingly.

  1. Science matters to all the Democratic candidates.

It is extraordinary that any modern human being would think that he could change the course of a hurricane with a Sharpie and then force respected scientists to confirm his delusion. It is extraordinary that any modern person would dismiss any scientific evidence he doesn’t like as a “hoax,” whether that’s climate change or the danger of a plague.

It can safely be said that every Democratic candidate will respect science and scientifically reached conclusions of fact and act on that rather than delusions and lies.

  1. Every Democratic candidate will be concerned with protecting and preserving the natural environment.

Far from dismissing science and actively working to destroy the very planet on which we all live, as Donald J. Trump does, every Democratic candidate will work to preserve the natural environment, to keep it habitable and to pass on livable conditions to future generations. There may be differences of degree or emphasis but there won’t be the wholesale dismissal of environmental conditions and environmental science as a “hoax.”

*  *  *

These are just a few of the crucial truths that set all the Democratic candidates apart from Donald J. Trump. The most fundamental, supposedly self-evident truths of the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are at risk.

It’s safe to say that the election of 2020 is the most critical since the first election of 1788; that it will determine whether America remains a democracy or lapses into dictatorship; that Donald J. Trump is a tyrant at heart and by both instinct and design aims to establish a tyranny over the United States more complete than any King George III ever imagined; and that every democrat—and that includes any person who believes in democracy at all—has an obligation to preserve, protect and defend the democracy and Constitution that has governed this nation and pass it on to future generations.

Against those kinds of stakes, the warts and pimples, the lapses and trivialities of different Democratic Party candidates fade into insignificance.

In Florida we don’t get to participate in Super Tuesday. But on March 17 and again on Nov. 3, we have to vote like our lives depend on it—because they do.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg


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Opinion: Naples Women’s March sent strong message


Jan. 24, 2019 By Jennifer Boddicker

On Saturday, Jan. 19, women sent a strong message at the Women Leading the Way March in Naples’ Cambier Park, organized by Collier Freedom.

While controversy around the national Women’s March may have impacted turnout, which was less than in previous years, the spirit and enthusiasm was obvious—and the message was unmistakable.

01-19-19 mirlande desir naples women's march
Mirlande Desir

Longtime resident 93-year-old Myra Daniels, as well as 16-year-old youth activist Anna Barry, declared the need for women to continue breaking gender barriers. Mirlande Desir, of the Naples Haitian community, called for comprehensive immigration reform and protection for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) recipients. Pam Keith, the first African America female to run for U.S. Senate from Florida, encouraged engagement with fellow citizens, even Trump supporters, about issues such as Medicare, Social Security, and healthcare.

Pink T-shirts of Planned Parenthood supporters dotted the crowd, as well as red T-shirts from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Susan Cone, president of the local Moms Demand Action chapter, reminded everyone that gun violence is a non-partisan issue. Public pressure after the Parkland shooting caused Florida to pass small, but meaningful landmark gun safety legislation in 2018.

01-19-19 jennifer boddicker cropped
Jennifer Boddicker

Annisa Karim, Collier County Democratic Chair, voiced the need for better representation and engagement with local government. David Holden, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, encouraged male allies to listen and avoid mansplaining—drawing chuckles from the crowd.

Penny Taylor, Collier County commissioner, gave a history of females in government in Collier County.

Several speakers (including myself) called for attendees to get involved and elect more women at all levels of government. We also celebrated a record 118 females elected to the US Congress in 2018, including people of color, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community.

That fight has only just begun.

(Photos courtesy of Jennifer Boddicker)



Liberty lives in light

Opinion: Bigotry in Trump’s speech could impact Southwest Florida

Jan. 8, 2019 by David Silverberg

There’s no evidence of a humanitarian or security crisis in Southwest Florida. The foreigners who usually arrive fly into Florida Southwest International Airport or drive down Route 75 from Ontario. A wall around Florida would be more useful for keeping out seawater than keeping out migrants.

As a result, there was very little in President Donald Trump’s national speech that seemed to apply to Southwest Florida. This was a national debate on a national issue that must be resolved in Congress at a national level.

However, what did flow out of Trump’s speech that can affect Southwest Florida and every city and town in the nation was his clear hatred of all immigrants, his stereotyping of broad swaths of people and his citations of only the worst examples of human behavior.

For every instance of an undocumented migrant who committed a crime, one can also cite the example of an immigrant who came to America, worked and thrived, perhaps put his life on the line in service to the United States and his fellow Americans and who made a contribution—some major, some minor—to this country.

But these don’t matter to Donald Trump. His poisonous hatred is capable of infecting Southwest Florida. It cannot help but lead to rising intolerance, suspicion and xenophobia. In the days ahead there will no doubt be instances of violence and hate crimes as a result of the kind of prejudice that Trump is promoting.

We can have debates over border security and the need for a wall. We can fact-check his figures and dissect his language. We can weigh the costs of his government shutdown. But what we can’t do is close the door and put back the bigotry that he releases into our homes.

Enough time has passed that generations—and Trump in particular—have forgotten where this kind of hatred led. Unchecked in Germany, it led to domestic tyranny, the Holocaust and World War II.

But closer to home, it’s worth remembering that this kind of prejudice and hatred, whipped up by hysteria and unconfirmed accusations, led to the lynching of two African-American teenagers in Fort Myers as recently as 1924.

We’ve long put away the days and passions of Nazism and Jim Crow and they should never be resurrected. But Trump is deliberately resuscitating long-dead demons of racism and hatred in pursuit of his narrow personal ends.

It’s up to everyone who knows history, who opposes bigotry and wants a big, vibrant and prosperous America and a peaceful and inclusive Southwest Florida to battle these demons, whether they appear in our hearts, our minds or in our dealings with our neighbors—no matter where they were born.

Liberty lives in light