Tag Archives: climate change


One Year After Irma, Everglades City Struggles to Rebuild

State climate change denial leaves coastal communities on their own to face the risks.

By Amy Green

Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

This report, part of an FCIR series on climate change, was produced in partnership with WMFE, the NPR member station in Orlando. Click on the player below to hear a radio version. 

EVERGLADES CITY – Three presidents have slept in Tina Collins’ home.

Her mint-colored cottage sheltered Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and other VIP guests to this frontier outpost of the southwest Florida wilderness, where the Barron River, Everglades and Gulf of Mexico converge.

Collins’ fondest memories of her 23-year home involve her husband and high school sweetheart Richard and their three children — James, 13, Katie, 12, and Gina, 11 — gathered on the expansive porch as Richard, a commercial stone crabber, motored by on the river.

More recent memories are not as sweet. One afternoon in August, Collins pushed open the door and stepped inside the dark, musty, dirty house.

“I don’t like staying here very long because I don’t like being exposed to the mold and stuff,” the 48-year-old Collins said quietly. “It’s not a healthy place.”

Tina Collins’ home once sheltered presidents and other VIP guests to Everglades City. She and her husband plan to knock down the house and rebuild on stilts. Photo by Amy Green

The power was out. The furniture was broken. Black mold gripped the white frame of a door leading into the kitchen, with bright teal cabinets Collins had painted. Stacked boxes were filled with the children’s old Halloween costumes and toys, things to be thrown away. Collins walked over to a wall paneled with original Dade County pine faded up to her knees — the height of the flood.

It’s been a long, challenging year for Collins and her family.

Since Hurricane Irma roared through Everglades City and up the Florida peninsula on Sept. 10, 2017, leaving almost no part of the state untouched, the Collins family has rented a ranger’s house in Everglades National Park while keeping up the mortgage payments on their shell of a home.

Eventually the Collins family plans to knock down the black mold-infested home and rebuild on stilts, but they don’t know when they will receive the money from their insurance company or how long they can continue to live temporarily in Everglades National Park.

“We’re all safe, and that’s what matters,” said Collins, who works in the administrative office of Big Cypress National Preserve, up the highway from Everglades City.

Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic Ocean, a Category 5 monster with winds topping out at 185 miles an hour. The hurricane lost intensity before making landfall as a Category 4. Coming weeks after Harvey’s deluge in Houston, Texas, Irma marked the first time two Category 4 storms hit the U.S. in the same year.

No state is more exposed to the dangers of hurricanes and storm surges than Florida, where by century’s end the total value of homes at risk for chronic inundation is projected to be more than $351 billion in today’s dollars, the highest amount of any coastal state, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization.

Hurricanes are forecast to grow more destructive with climate change, as warmer waters boost intensity and rising tides push storm surges like that experienced by Everglades City higher and farther inland.

By 2100, about 40 percent of the at-risk homes in the entire United States will be in Florida, where today this real estate generates $5 billion annually in property tax revenue. Nearly a quarter of these homes were built after 2000, a testament to Florida’s brazen coastal building despite the risks.

Everglades City bills itself as the Stone Crab Capital of the World. Photo by Amy Green

Irma ended up in Everglades City after early forecasts showed the hurricane making landfall in densely populated South Florida before following a path straight up the state’s center. Instead, the hurricane walloped Florida with a one-two punch, making landfall on Cudjoe Key and then hours later on Marco Island, about 18 miles south of Naples. Everglades City bore the brunt of this second landfall when the hurricane pushed a devastating storm surge into the remote village. Everything not on stilts flooded.

Irma was responsible for 84 deaths in Florida and nearly $10 billion in insurance claims.

The uncertainty about Irma’s path led to the largest hurricane evacuation in U.S. history. Some 7 million Floridians left home to seek shelter elsewhere.

Today, the uncertainty underscores the fact that Everglades City’s storm surge could have happened anywhere. The community’s recovery — now a year in the making — is a window into the future for coastal communities across Florida in a warming world. Gov. Rick Scott’s climate change policy of denial has left the state to focus after disasters on how to build rather than where to build.

“There are a lot of different ways that if we acknowledge these problems now that we can actually help people save money, help keep people safer and make for a future where hopefully some of these events are less catastrophic,” said Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist for Florida Sea Grant, an education and research organization focused on coastal resources at the University of Florida.

“The longer we continue to pretend that our coastal areas and the hazards they face are not changing,” Ruppert said, “the more we are promoting a future where events will be increasingly catastrophic.”


Few places in Florida are as remote as Everglades City. The community of some 450 year-round residents spreads out from the Barron River’s east bank in layers of cottages and stilted homes, with a gleaming white city hall at the center.

Irma was not the first hurricane to destroy the community. Damage from Hurricane Donna in 1960 was so severe that Collier County moved its seat to East Naples.

The resilience of Everglades City’s residents traces back to soon after the Civil War, when the first settlers arrived in search of a frost-free climate, although long before that the wilderness here harbored Native Americans fleeing the Indian Wars and slaves escaped from the Confederate states. The same wilderness ensured the settlers’ self-reliance. With no roads, the closest doctor was a six-hour boat trip away in Key West.

Today, 1 million visitors pass through Everglades City annually on their way into the Everglades or the sprinkling of islands just off shore in the Gulf of Mexico, and many locals make a living as airboat tour guides, fishing guides or stone crabbers. Everglades City bills itself as the Stone Crab Capital of the World.

Now, Hurricane Irma has threatened to change all that.

Lisa Marteeny waded through chest-high water with her husband Lee and their pug mix Killer to escape their flooding trailer. Photo by Amy Green

After the storm made landfall, water began rising through the floorboards of Lisa Marteeny’s mobile home on a canal of the Barron River.

Marteeny knew it was time to go. She grabbed the couple’s pug mix Killer and waded to a neighbor’s home on stilts, Killer doggy-paddling alongside her. Then she returned for Lee, who suffered from heart problems. Marteeny helped her husband to his feet, and together the couple made it safely next door.

“It was so loud, and the blowing and the whistling from the wind, we couldn’t even hardly hear each other unless we were close,” Marteeny recalled, describing an apocalyptic scene. “You had roofs flying all over the place and water rushing in. A refrigerator went down the street. It was very scary.”

Less than a week later, Lee, 72, was dead. The couple had lived in the trailer for 12 years.

The disaster of Everglades City’s storm surge continued, even after the water receded.

The next danger came from the mud. It was everywhere, with fecal contamination so severe that county scientists found it was beyond measure. One man’s leg had to be amputated because of infection. Tina Collins had just enough gasoline to drive to Marco Island to have an infected leg wound treated.

Lee Marteeny was 72. Photo courtesy Lisa Marteeny

A few days after Hurricane Irma blew through, Marteeny said open wounds on her husband Lee’s legs grew hot and turned black. He began vomiting and experiencing excruciating pain. An ambulance from Naples took nearly an hour to arrive, and Lee never regained consciousness. He died five days after Irma.

Marteeny spent the following months with friends and in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Our town is kind of like a ghost town,” said Marteeny, 63, who works in the water billing office of Everglades City. “It’s kind of sad because there’s whole families that are gone, that have to live somewhere else. I think there might be still people living in cars, or they’re living in their homes, and it’s truly not safe from the bacteria and the mold and all of that stuff.”

Hurricane Irma took a huge toll on Everglade City — some 60 percent of Everglades City’s homes were condemned. Dozens must be put on stilts under a National Flood Insurance Program rule requiring that if more than half of the structure is damaged, it must be brought up to current building codes.

Nearly a quarter of residents here have yet to return home. Some are awaiting grant and insurance money. Others are having trouble hiring contractors. There just aren’t enough contractors and handymen in the area, and few are willing to make the trip from Naples or Marco Island.

Everglades City Mayor Howie Grimm says the town will be better than before. Photo by Amy Green

Many in Everglades City hope to see faster progress as more densely populated areas such as Marco Island and Naples complete repairs and contractors look for work elsewhere, said Tony Pernas, chairman of a locally appointed committee overseeing the recovery.

“Ten years down the line, I think it’s going to be a much more resilient community. Everyone’s going to be up on stilts. There’s not going to be this panic the next time a hurricane comes, and we’re not going to have to worry about storm surge. The roads will probably be elevated,” said Pernas, a botanist at Big Cypress National Preserve.

“People are always drawn to the coast, and it’s pretty short-sighted that people are going to move inland to higher ground.”

The challenges experienced by the community raise questions about rebuilding in areas vulnerable to the more extreme weather events of climate change and also sea-level rise.

“It becomes a wicked problem,” said Chris Emrich, an associate professor of environmental science and public administration at the University of Central Florida’s National Center for Integrated Coastal Research.

“It’s an easy problem when we say, ‘Oh, we only have to move 400 people, and they would be safe.’ But it becomes wicked and confounding when we say, ‘It’s not just 400 people,’ “ Emrich explained. “It’s the livelihoods. It’s the culture. It’s all of the other things that turn just a simple answer into a more complex and devilish problem.”

The Scott administration has shown almost no leadership on these complex issues. The governor has doubted whether more extreme weather events and rising tides are threats, questioned whether human activity is speeding the Earth’s warming and banned words such as “climate change” and “global warming” from state reports and communications, as the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed in 2015.

After touring Irma-related damage in the Florida Keys the same week the hurricane hit, the governor said, “Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is.” Scott, a Republican, cannot seek a third term and is running this year against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

“We’ve typically developed our law and policy on the assumption that the way the world is today probably is the way it’s going to be tomorrow,” said Ruppert of Florida Sea Grant.

The reality many Florida coastal communities will face is whether they can afford to remain where they are, he said.

Already there is evidence the risks of climate change and sea-level rise are affecting property values, and that will mean less tax revenue for infrastructure improvements that can mitigate problems such as the flooding associated with sea-level rise. It also is possible insurance and mortgage companies will withdraw from coastal areas.

“What the science tells us now is that the past is not necessarily a good guide to what is coming down the road in the future, and the more we acknowledge that reality, that is going to allow us to go forward and help people understand that if we’re going to rebuild here, maybe you’re going to be at higher risk and maybe you want to rethink that. Or maybe you want to rebuild differently,” Ruppert said. “I have no doubt that at some point there will be a significant change, and I’m not alone in believing that.”


Just beyond Everglades City, growing thickets of mangroves are overtaking the sawgrass prairie as more salt water pushes farther inland. Photo by Amy Green

The sawgrass of the Everglades once unfurled green and vast from Everglades City to the horizon, a remarkable freshwater prairie beneath a blue dome of a sky.

Many locals describe their community as City of Everglades, although the watershed here is changing. Up the highway, growing thickets of mangroves, small trees that thrive in coastal brackish waters, are obscuring the horizon. The trees have found a place here as less freshwater flows from the north and more saltwater pushes inland. In some places, hundreds of thousands of mangroves have overtaken the prairie. The sawgrass that is the essence of the river of grass is disappearing.

Tina Collins stood in her front yard, at the intersection of Florida’s past and future, apologizing for an overgrown lawn as she considered the demolishment of her historic home and its reconstruction on stilts.

“Do I ever want to go through this again? No. I want my home raised up, whatever I have to do,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be a victim of flooding again.”

Like many residents, she and her husband have considered leaving Everglades City, but Richard is a fifth-generation resident and a third-generation stone crabber while she has her career at Big Cypress. The only life they know is here.

It’s a life in Florida whose future may no longer be certain in our warming world.

Amy Green covers the environment for WMFE. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the Everglades.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.


With Governor and Legislators in Denial, This Tiny Florida Town Tries to Adapt to Climate Change

Yankeetown looks to natural environment for protection

By Amy Green
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

This report, part of an FCIR series on climate change, was produced in partnership with WMFE, the NPR member station in Orlando. Click on the player below to hear a radio version. 

YANKEETOWN, Florida – While Florida state government bans the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official business, this coastal fishing village of about 500 people and more water than dry land is being swallowed by the sea with almost no public attention or concern.

But town officials here are fighting back with some success.

Every few minutes a tide gauge takes another measure of the dramatic change facing Yankeetown, situated near the Florida peninsula’s northwest corner, where the Withlacoochee River flows 141 miles north from Central Florida’s Green Swamp into the Gulf of Mexico.

The gauge is inside a weathered PVC pipe screwed into the wood piling of a tiny tin dock at the end of a trail in the Withlachoochee Gulf Preserve. The fishermen and kayakers who use the dock don’t notice the instrument. A University of Florida student monitors information it records, comparing the data to that collected by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gauge located just up the coast in Cedar Key.

The data shows the sea level here is rising seven inches per century, about the global rate, and the rate is accelerating.

The signs of change are visible everywhere, most notably in what climate scientists describe as “ghost forests,” the bony remains of inundated forest islands that 30 years ago were lush with cabbage palms and red cedars. In some places, the grassy black needlerush of the salt marsh almost completely shrouds the old tree stumps.

“The Withlachoochee Gulf Preserve and the area around Yankeetown is perhaps the best place in the world to see the effects of sea-level rise,” said Jack Putz, a University of Florida forest ecologist who has worked in the area for nearly three decades. “You go from forest to salt marsh to mud flats and sea grass to open Gulf water all in the space of a mile, and it’s just a spectacular kind of place to see the whole process.”

Yankeetown sits on the north bank of the Withlacoochee River, with boundaries actually extending three miles into the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing eight square miles of dry land and 13 square miles of estuarine and marine habitat. The boundaries were drawn in 1923, when the town was establshed by Armanis F. Knotts, a politician and lawyer from Indiana. The name Yankeetown came from a local mail carrier who always referred to Knotts’ small settlement as “that Yankee town.”

Traffic is scarce in Yankeetown, home to some 500 residents. Photo by Isaac Babcock.

Today Yankeetown’s moss-draped oaks shade tidy homes, some of them tin-roofed cottages as old as the town itself. The population dwindles during the summer to maybe 200, when locals flee temperatures in excess of 90 degrees and head north for cooler air.

Yankeetown and its surrounding communities are politically conservative today, with 66 percent of Levy County voters supporting President Donald Trump in 2016. Yankeetown’s only restaurant is the Blackwater Grill, across the street from the city hall and an adjoining volunteer fire station housing a single shiny red truck. The closest grocery store is about 12 miles away in Crystal River, best known for its 41-year-old nuclear power plant and as the place where tourists can swim with manatees.

Across the country, coastal communities are considering how to protect essential infrastructure from sea-level rise and climate change.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson this year, has doubted whether rising tides and more extreme weather events are threats, questioned whether human activity is speeding the Earth’s warming, and banned terms such as “climate change” and “global warming” from use in state reports and communications, as the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed in 2015.

The Sunshine State’s policy of denial has led to a lack of leadership on the impact of climate change and left communities on their own as they confront the dangers and infrastructure costs associated with more regular flooding and saltwater intrusion into underground drinking water supplies.

Metropolitan areas such as Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach are installing pumps and raising roads, but small communities lack the resources and political clout for such measures. Some such as Satellite Beach, on Florida’s east coast near Kennedy Space Center, are considering changes to building and zoning regulations.

Yankeetown has chosen a different — and unprecedented — approach, focusing instead on the natural environment as an economic engine and natural protector against higher water and more extreme weather. The town has applied a 2011 state law designed to protect vulnerable infrastructure to natural resources such as the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve and its salt marsh.

“This little town on the Gulf coast of Florida was one of the first in the country to develop such a detailed approach for dealing with the inevitable, of sea level rise,” Putz said, adding: “It’s remarkable that a small town is leading the charge.”


Few coastal regions in the United States are as undeveloped as Yankeetown and its surroundings. Protected lands such as the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve have supported groundbreaking studies on the natural environment by the University of Florida, Nature Conservancy and others, resulting in some of the longest-running climate change research anywhere.

It all began in the early 1990s when Putz received a call from a distraught Yankeetown landowner about his sabal palms, which were dying. The sabal palm is the Florida state tree, a hardy survivor of drought, high winds, severe cold and some flooding. Putz agreed to take a look. When he visited, Putz could see the die-off extended to other tree species. A flyover on a Florida Forest Service helicopter confirmed what he feared: “Massive tree death.”

“It was concentrated on the edges of contiguous forest, many of which were near the sea but some of which were quite far inland,” Putz recalled.

What Putz saw was astounding. Rising seas were drowning the trees. The forests were retreating as the salt marsh migrated inland.

Sensing the changes underway and the interest of researchers, Yankeetown residents held a series of community meetings and public hearings. In 2016, they added an amendment to the town’s comprehensive plan establishing a nearly 18-square-mile area, 86 percent of the town, as a so-called natural resources adaptation action area, aimed at protecting their natural environment. The referendum passed overwhelmingly.

The designation of an adaptation action area is authorized under a state measure approved in 2011, after Scott took office and overhauled Florida’s growth management policy. Conservationists and planners derided many of the changes at the time as the law reorganized the Department of Community Affairs into the new Department of Economic Opportunity, which reduced state oversight of local planning.

The measure also eliminated provisions aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions approved only a few years earlier, but it added an option for local governments to account for sea-level rise and climate change by designating adaptation action areas.

These designated areas, promoted by Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties as part of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, can help local governments shape growth and development in ways that are more resilient to the effects of sea-level rise.

Yankeetown sits on the north bank of the Withlacoochee River, where manatees like to play. Photo by Isaac Babcock.

While these areas were first conceived to protect and prioritize funding for critical infrastructure, such as power plants, pumping stations and roads, Yankeetown has used the designation to protect natural habitats that can provide a measure of protection from rising tides.

Florida is the first state in the nation to put adaptation action areas into law, following a failed push at the federal level that would have focused funding on vulnerable areas. Had Congress appropriated federal funds, Florida would have been first in line for money. Yankeetown is one of at least six local governments to designate adaptation action areas. The others include Broward County, Fernandina Beach, Pinecrest, Satellite Beach and Fort Lauderdale, all of which have used the designation to focus funding on infrastructure to mitigate flooding. The designation does not make way for state money. Rather, it is meant to be a planning tool to help local governments prioritize funding for projects that lessen threats associated with sea-level rise.

“Yankeetown is definitely the first one to focus the idea of an adaptation action area on natural resources as opposed to built infrastructure,” said Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist for Florida Sea Grant, a research organization at the University of Florida.

Yankeetown’s goal is to preserve natural resources by giving them space to evolve as the world warms, without the impediments of sea walls or development right at the edge. By doing so, natural protections can be fortified, such as oyster reefs that buffer against sea-level rise, cleanse water and are important economically to the area as well. The town also is left with room to migrate to higher ground if necessary.

“We wanted to protect the environment and allow it to evolve as things change and not be in the way of it,” said Larry Feldhusen, mayor when the town established its natural resources adaptation action area.

Yankeetown’s efforts come in the absence of meaningful state leadership on climate change. Throughout his two terms as governor, Scott has been unwilling to acknowledge climate change as a threat to the state. After touring damage from Hurricane Irma in the hard-hit Florida Keys in 2017, the governor said, “Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is.”

Nine months later, hurricane-related insurance claims in the state were estimated at nearly $10 billion. Hurricane Andrew in 1992, by comparison, caused some $20.5 billion in inflation-adjusted losses. Local governments grappling with the realities of sea-level rise and climate change need more help than they receive from the state government, Ruppert said.

“Since the current administration (took office), there has been a lot less focus on climate change,” Ruppert said. “For more of the planning work, there hasn’t been much leadership.”


Yankeetown sits five feet above sea level. When Hurricane Hermine in 2016 pushed the tide at Cedar Key to six feet, the highest on record since the gauge was installed a century ago, some 30 homes flooded, including Feldhusen’s.

“It’s kind of devastating, you might say,” said Feldhusen, a retired airline pilot who has lived with his wife Christine in the home for 15 years. “It can be pretty trying.”

More than two feet of water flowed into the white stucco home with a boat house and 17-foot Boston Whaler out back. The flooding destroyed appliances, cabinets, furniture and sheetrock in the home on a canal of the Withlacoochee River.

“It was basically three weeks of every day being involved in trying to clean out the house, and of course you have to arrange for temporary living somewhere else,” he said. “After several moppings and disinfecting, you finally get to where you can go into the house, and you’ve dried it out and it’s clean to be in. And that takes days and days and days.”

Yankeetown faces existential change.

Sea-level rise of a meter, or about 40 inches, by 2100 would convert nearly all of the town’s dry land, including developed areas, into regularly flooded marsh. More extreme weather events such as hurricanes also are a threat.

Nearly two years after Hermine, the Feldhusens’ home remains in disrepair. Their flood insurance requires that if more than half of the structure is damaged, the entire home must be brought up to current building codes. Among other major changes, the couple must put the home on stilts at least 10 feet high. The costs, altogether estimated at $180,000, could force them from their home.

The Feldhusens likely will remain in the area because they like it here, but even after the planning he oversaw as mayor, he can’t say whether storms like Hermine are related to climate change. The hurricane was a Category 1 when it made landfall in the Florida Panhandle.

“Having lived in Florida all my life, I’ve seen hurricanes come, and some years you’ll have a pretty substantial hurricane or two, and then other years you’ll go by without any hurricanes affecting you. … I don’t think we’ve got the data to say, ‘Yep, these storms are definitely related to climate change,’ ” he said. “The climate has been changing since long before global warming and climate change became popular subjects.”

Many in Yankeetown have similar doubts.

“I can’t say I spend a lot of time delving into it,” said Jack Schofield, the town’s current mayor who says he worries more about the economy and public safety. “Personally I think it’s cyclical, but I’m not a scientist.”

Bill Phillips, a Yankeetown fishing guide, believes sea level rise and climate change are affecting his catch. Fisheries are an important economic engine in the area. Photo by Isaac Babcock.

Tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico has increased during the past 20 years, and scientists link storm intensity to warmer waters. The paradox underscores a deep commitment to the natural environment here as the town, like many others along the coasts, faces an uncertain future in a warming world.

“Given the elevation of Yankeetown and other coastal towns all along the coast, they are going to have to move. It will no longer be viable to live there. There will be places where society is willing to spend extraordinary amounts of money to prolong the life and place of coastal communities, but Yankeetown is not one of them,” said Putz of the University of Florida.

“But I have hopes that the people of Yankeetown, in anticipation of these inevitable changes, are going to adapt in ways that are less disruptive, and I hope that the community spirit is retained as people have to move out of the lowest-lying areas.”

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.