PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — On a Wednesday afternoon in October on the patio of the Celtic Ray, an Irish pub in the center of town, co-owner Kevin Doyle bounded out a door to say hello. The pub looked fine, all in one piece — despite Hurricane Ian and its 150 mile-per-hour winds barreling through three weeks before. Notably, it looked far better than the last time such a storm laid waste to this part of the Florida Gulf Coast, in 2004.
“Hurricane Charley saved us from Hurricane Ian,” Doyle said, grinning.
Charley was a small storm, geographically speaking, with hurricane-force winds spreading out only half as far as Ian’s. But tightly wound and moving fast, it ripped off the faces of office buildings and picked roofs clean and flung them across town. It took major chunks out of the Celtic Ray, to the extent that the then-owner — Doyle has run it since 1997, but has not owned it throughout — decided to tear down what was left of it and start over.
The demolition crew sent to execute that mission just weeks after the storm, though, didn’t expect what came next.
“The wrecking ball slammed against the side of the two-story brick building, and out runs the proprietor Mr. Kevin Doyle, yelling and screaming at this guy that he needed to stop because the building was occupied,” recounted Mitchell Austin, a city planner in the Punta Gorda city manager’s office. “It was quite a stout brick building so the first blow actually didn’t do any structural damage. The wrecking ball guy didn’t swing quite hard enough.”
Almost two decades later, the pub has expanded and thrived, and no demolition crews lingered on the horizon after Hurricane Ian. Punta Gorda as a whole survived Ian largely intact; part of this is a matter of luck, as the city’s spot in the storm’s path meant that water was mostly pulled out of Charlotte Harbor and flung toward sites to the south, such as Fort Myers Beach. Instead of storm surge, Punta Gorda got fierce winds, similar to Charley, along with heavy rain, albeit for a longer period of time than in 2004.
But it wasn’t all luck: Rebuilding after the last hurricane meant stricter adherence to new building codes, so roofs were connected more tightly all the way to the foundation, different materials were used, structures were raised slightly off the ground, and more. And further, in the calm years between the two storms, Punta Gorda took a clear-eyed approach to the existential risk facing all low-lying coastal regions in a warming world, beginning a planning process for when climate change sends the water, already lapping at its doorstep, dangerously higher.
This was supposed to be a different story. It was a story about preparing for an oncoming, inevitable but diffuse catastrophe in the making, not necessarily one about which city’s buildings were still standing after the acute catastrophe arrived.
My original flight to Fort Myers, planned and booked before Ian was a sparkle in the roiling tropics’ eye, was due in around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28; the hurricane made landfall a couple hours after that.
I was heading to Punta Gorda because this small city — about 20,000 within the city limits — in deep red Southwest Florida, with elevations rising only a few feet above sea level and a substantial portion of residents living in a series of dredge-and-fill canal-based neighborhoods that look on Google Maps like a collection of wobbly extra-terrestrial fingers reaching out into shreds of water, seemed like it might offer some lessons on climate change adaptation.
In 2020, Donald Trump won 63 percent of the vote in Charlotte County, of which Punta Gorda is the seat and only incorporated city. At most recent count, only about 23 percent of registered voters are Democrats. As Austin and I drove through those dredge-and-fill canal neighborhoods, yard signs for Marco Rubio and Ron DeSantis dominated. We passed a trash can spray-painted with “Hurricane Biden.”
But the city does not shy away from its climate-related vulnerability as a conservative community might be expected to given the issue’s polarized nature. More than a decade ago, the city council voted unanimously to participate in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Ready Estuary pilot program, from which eventually sprang a municipal climate adaptation plan. There was substantial citizen participation, and the plan identified 54 vulnerabilities relating to climate change, along with specific targets for action. For example, the plan aimed to increase sea grass coverage in the Peace River, which empties into Charlotte Harbor, as part of a natural shoreline restoration project that could protect against storm surge; it also limited building of “high-risk” infrastructure, keeping it out of any hurricane and tropical storm surge zones.
“I think the climate adaptation plan that the city did in 2009 is really a product of two forces,” Austin told me. “One, it’s the trauma from having experienced Hurricane Charley in 2004. And it’s also a product of the sort of practicality of the people who are in political leadership here.”
When I first arrived in Punta Gorda, I sat in on the first post-Ian city council meeting, held in the Gulf Theater in the city’s Military Heritage Museum. It began with a moment of silence for all affected by the hurricane, in particular those communities to the south that faced much more destruction and death, and ended with an exhortation from council member Debby Carey. She described a previous experience with the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, where some involved didn’t believe in climate change’s threat to the region or the need for a resilience plan: “For anyone [who] thinks there isn’t a need,” Carey said, “I encourage them to drive through Fort Myers beach.”
If the summer of 2022 has made anything clear, it is that the geographical extent of climate change-related vulnerability is breathtaking. With disasters ranging from wildfire to hurricanes striking across the world in increasingly devastating fashion, it has become harder and harder for a country, region or city to ignore the threat.
The development of explicit climate adaptation plans by state and local governments demonstrates this in the United States. According to the Georgetown Climate Center, just under half of states have such a plan; many are the usual (mostly) blue suspects — California, Oregon, Washington, the New England states, Colorado — but others better reflect their risk than their politics. For example, North Carolina, a state that famously once tried to legislate sea level rise out of existence, finalized a Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan in 2020.
Florida has a statewide plan, too, and a few counties and municipalities around the state have their own related policies in place. Often, though, red states or regions resort to adaptation planning that dares not speak its name.
“You’ll see a lot of strategies along the Gulf Coast where local governments are trying to do something about sea level rise, although sometimes not explicitly calling it climate,” said Eric Chu, an assistant professor and co-director of the Climate Adaptation Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “It’s coastal erosion and storm surge. It’s hurricane risks. But if you read between the lines — yeah, you’re doing climate adaptation.”
This is a double-edged sword, Chu said. On the one hand, doing something about the rapidly accumulating climate risks — improving shoreline defenses, or better managing wildfire risks at the urban-wildland interface, or addressing the danger of outdoor work in areas increasingly prone to extreme heat — is better than doing nothing.
“The flip side of that is, you risk being not able to scale up any efforts,” he said. “If you have one city doing something, the next city doing something else and the county over doing something else, and they don’t have a common language to talk about what they’re doing … then how do you adapt to climate change at scale?”
Florida and other coastal regions offer a simple demonstration of this: If one town builds better shorelines or sea walls, and the storm surge comes, that water has to go somewhere. One city’s climate change adaptation could spell the city next door’s climate catastrophe.
A “perfect audience”
Since staying in Punta Gorda proper was still difficult a few weeks after Hurricane Ian hit, I found a hotel to the north, in Venice, where the only damage visible was the piles of branches and other tree debris still lined up on sidewalks awaiting collection. Driving down the Tamiami Trail, the century-old road that turns east after Naples and cuts clean across the Everglades on the way to Miami, the hurricane began to make itself better known — a tarp over a gas station’s missing roof, street signs evaporated from their frames, debris and trash bags piled up on roadsides in front of shopping centers.
Across the Peace River and into Punta Gorda, there were terracotta shingles missing from rooftops and enormous trees with entire root structures ripped from the ground. Denuded palm trees, the fronds gathered into massive piles, were everywhere. But it quickly became clear that with a few exceptions, those shingles and trees and fronds were more or less all the damage to be found — no ripped-off building fronts, no massive piles of brick and metal where a restaurant used to sit, nothing at all like the abject destruction further south.
As Austin and I walked back the few blocks from the Celtic Ray to City Hall — still covered in white metal shutters — he pointed out which buildings had been destroyed 18 years before.
“It really altered the character and nature of the place,” he said. Austin’s last official day as an employee of neighboring Lee County was Friday, Aug. 13, 2004: the day Charley roared ashore. He started as an employee of Punta Gorda the following Monday, as the city began trying to clean up, and has been there ever since.
In 2008 and 2009, the city arranged a series of public outreach meetings on climate risks, involving 30 to 40 people at a time, where residents could learn about vulnerabilities and ask questions. Though Punta Gorda is made up largely of transplants, with retirees and others moving in year by year, there were plenty of people who, in spite of political leanings, had a fairly clear picture of what climate change impacts looked like.
“They viscerally were aware of what the risks were,” Austin said. “It’s almost the perfect audience.”
No escape, only retreat
It’s important to remember the luck part. When Hurricane Ian came ashore, the storm surge in parts of the Fort Myers area was simply too much to handle, rising 10 feet or more above ground and causing widespread devastation. If that surge had shifted north by 40 miles or so, the Punta Gorda success story wouldn’t really play.
“They may be safer from the wind, but you’re not safer from the water,” said Kathleen Croteau, a building official with the city of Punta Gorda.
Sitting in her office, Croteau explained how Charley’s timing was in a strange sense another source of luck: Florida overhauled its building codes in 2001, an overdue response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and began implementation of those codes in 2002. When Charley hit a couple of years later, most structures were obviously older than the new codes, but the ones that were rebuilt afterward followed those codes to the letter.
Still, 10 feet of storm surge wouldn’t leave much untouched in a city so low to the water. On a Thursday, Austin and I took a drive around town; in Punta Gorda Isles, one of those E.T.-finger canal zones, it was easy to spot the homes grandfathered into the earlier system of building. Some of the houses — each of which has canal access — were lower than is now required, by only a few critical feet, while others sat slightly higher, on filled-in mounds. A few older homes were lower than the road level, more or less even with the water.
Those neighborhoods are reasonably well protected, though, with an extensive stretch of mangrove forest and wetland separating Charlotte Harbor from the houses. Downtown is a different story, with the mouth of the Peace River more or less lapping at the city’s main thoroughfares. That vulnerability led the city to consider a particularly controversial type of climate change adaptation, known as managed retreat — the proactive moving of structures out of floodplains or other vulnerable areas before catastrophe strikes.
We drove to the new site of the city public works facility, where it moved after the adaptation plan’s adoption in 2009. Turning into the driveway, we climbed a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it incline of around 2 or 3 feet, enough in this part of the state to qualify as substantially safer. Over the course of a few days, Austin occasionally referred to parts of town that were “high and dry,” and those 2 feet are what he meant.
As it stands, no other major structures are being considered for retreat — or “planned relocation,” the preferred terminology of the Punta Gorda adaptation plan — but the 2019 update to the plan does outline a process for such possibilities. Given the enormous breadth of coastal vulnerability in the U.S. (not to mention river floodplains), the possibility of more widespread retreat — versus shoreline resilience projects, sea walls and so on — is gaining ground.
“We either as a country have to decide that we have the financial appetite to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to protect every single town in its place, right on the river, on the coast, in the dangerous place,” University of Delaware assistant professor and managed retreat expert A.R. Siders told me when we spoke late last year. “Or we decide that we’re not going to, and then that requires managed retreat as a strategy.”
In other words, though Punta Gorda’s clear-eyed climate sensibilities certainly seem prescient in the wake of Ian, there will be a point when an honest adaptation plan will require looking a bit further into Florida’s perilous future.
Confronting existential risk
The high-tide line clearly visible along the sea walls in the canals of Punta Gorda Isles is only a couple of feet below the wall’s top. Mangrove protection or not, those canals are connected to the harbor, and with a few feet of sea level rise — within the best accepted projections for this century — this entire community and others like it will be threatened. So are the city’s adaptation initiatives forward-thinking and reasonable, or willfully blind to what’s coming?
“What happens if 30 years down the line, we’re seeing 3 feet of sea level rise?” Chu asked when I told him about the relocated public works facility. “Does that mean we have to move it again? Does that mean we have to build a new one somewhere else?”
Austin said that for the most part, the Punta Gorda climate adaptation efforts consider something like a 30- to 50-year window of time, centering a concern over whether money spent now will lose its value at the end of some particular resource’s life span. “It’s about the life cycle of the public infrastructure that we install,” he said, adding that the predominance of retirees in the area does mean that perspectives may be different than in a community with a younger population.
“Their future horizon is not necessarily that, 50 years … ‘Are my grandkids going to be living here or not?’” Austin said. “It’s, you know, ‘Is my home going to be valuable for my heirs to sell in 25 years?’”
Punta Gorda has around 100 miles of sea wall — canal wall, more accurately, snaking in and around the alien fingers — all owned and maintained by the city itself. We stood at the edge of a canal looking across at one small section that had collapsed during Ian, a relatively minor casualty that didn’t seem to result in any damage beyond the wall itself. It would be fixed soon enough, though the high-tide line on the surviving portions of wall somehow seemed even more menacing.
Later, I asked Austin if there was any sense that Ian could offer any lessons the way that Charley did two decades earlier. He told me that there are always more steps to be taken, and that Punta Gorda is taking an incremental, baby-steps approach to climate resilience; for example, elevation data used in the last city plan were from 2017, and new methods would hone those data further — in a city where, as I’d come to understand, every inch counts — to allow for better planning in the future.
“It’s interesting,” Austin mused. “Charley acted as a catalyst. It looks like Ian might be acting in the same way.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.