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Red Pen Edit: Sarah Stodola on Hurricanes and Rebuilding
This article by Sarah Stodola about the rebuilding of Fort Myers Beach after it was hit by Hurricane Ian was published in the New York Times last week. Do read the whole article. Like so much in today’s popular media, it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of tradeoffs and lacks a coherent philosophy (read a similar Red Pen Edit I wrote about skiing here). Let’s dive in.
The rapid redevelopment of coastal communities like Fort Myers Beach in the face of sea level rise and more intense storms and hurricanes mirrors a phenomenon sweeping beachfronts around the world: upscaling, the practice of replacing old or more modest homes, condos and hotels with more expensive versions, largely thanks to the high cost of building up to new storm-resistant codes and the potentially uninsured risks associated with doing so.
This is an interesting tact to take. One of the reasons Fort Myers Beach was so devastated by Hurricane Ian was because few of the existing buildings confirmed to current building codes. This makes sense; seventy or a hundred years ago a land owner could build freely on their property. The result was many buildings that wouldn’t survive a direct hit from a hurricane.
The advantage of these new building codes is that they will mitigate the damage done by future storms. The disadvantage is that they are expensive and price out small-scale building. With hurricane building codes storm-resistant buildings that are expensive will be built, without hurricane building codes storm-vulnerable buildings that are more affordable will be built. It’s fine to prefer either scenario, but the tradeoff has to be acknowledged. What Ms. Stodola prefers is unclear.
The most confusing point is in the last sentence. Because Fort Myers Beach is so flood-prone, private insurers are reluctant to insure properties there. Thus, the sensible thing is to construct hurricane-resistant buildings. Yet, Stodola is implying that constructing safe buildings when the property can’t be insured is a bad thing.
And yet we could be making other plans for these communities. There are policies that would encourage people to move away from the coast, as well as new possibilities for movable and flexible structures.
That’s a great idea, but to where? People who live in Fort Myers Beach are going to want to live near the ocean if they are forced to move. Where are we going to put them? The first link discusses “managed retreat”, a policy where some areas are abandoned entirely. The example given is that of Valmeyer, Illinois, an entire town that relocated following several floods in 1993. It’s wonderful that managed retreat worked out for them, but there’s little resemblance to Fort Myers Beach. Valmeyer had fewer than 900 people as of the 1990 census and is located in rural Southeastern Illinois. Moving the entire town two miles away wasn’t that difficult. Fort Myers Beach had a pre-hurricane population of over 5,500 people and is a significant tourist destination. The idea that the town could be moved two miles inland and stay at all the same is fanciful.
The second and third links don’t provide much confidence either. The former talks about the “first floating eco-luxe suite in the world”. The latter, “The Seedpod” that “provides an immersive biophilic experience”. Are we seriously being told that these can replace the homes, hotels, shops, and restaurants that once made up Fort Myers Beach? Come on. This is a great example of providing links in an article and hoping no one clicks them.
Before the storm hit, Fort Myers Beach was a colorful, pleasantly ramshackle town along a fairly perfect seven-mile stretch of sand. Its single-story bungalow homes and condo buildings gave middle-class sun seekers entree into beachside living… A few bigger hotels, like the Lani Kai, a pastel-colored resort once popular with spring breakers, dotted choice beachfront lots. But as the cleanup efforts finally give way to planning and rebuilding, it looks as if large, high-end hotels and condos will eventually dominate the beachfront.
I fail to see how this is a worse alternative than moving the entire city inland or replacing the buildings with glorified floating tents.
But upscaling is also a consequence of confronting climate change, especially in the aftermath of a devastating storm like Ian. Stringent building codes and dysfunction in the insurance industry have driven the cost of rebuilding beyond the reach of many current property owners, including small-scale developers.
If we are going to take climate change seriously, adaptation must be one of the planks of that effort. It isn’t an option to solely focus on reducing emissions. It is perfectly reasonable to argue that stringent building codes should be abandoned to allow small-scale developers the opportunity to build. But this has to be squared with the inevitable result that every hurricane causes massive damage.
Second, difficulty insuring not-up-to-code buildings in a hurricane area at a time of rising sea levels is not the result of “dysfunction”. It’s common sense! Insurers make money by charging premiums to a large group of people and playing the odds that only a small portion make claims every year. No business will insure a building that is likely to be destroyed during the next storm, and that’s totally fine.
The Silver Sands Resort is one poignant example. Parts of it were built around 101 years ago, making it the oldest hotel on the island’s beachfront. Before Ian destroyed it entirely, its 14 cottages were among a dwindling number of modest accommodation options. Just after the storm, its owner expressed a desire to rebuild, but a few months later, after receiving a woefully insufficient insurance payout, she sold the land for $7.1 million to the developer of the Margaritaville Resort.
According to the linked news story, the owner of Silver Sands Resort was offered $500,000 by the insurance company to rebuild. Obviously that’s nowhere close to enough to rebuild 14 cottages. I’d be curious to know why the insurance payout was so low, but this isn’t addressed. According to the owner, it would have cost around $3 million to rebuild. Maybe the owner could have fought the insurer in court, but all-in-all, getting $7.1 million for the property doesn’t seem like a bad outcome. I’d take it.
They’re also banking on the infinite desirability of the beachfront, as are the state authorities responsible for the building codes that allow redevelopment after hurricanes and floods. But when the beaches have to be fortified against erosion and sea level rise, taxpayers and governments are stuck with the bill.
Instead, the state could cultivate solutions that benefit a wider set of people who want to live near the coast: temporary, movable structures for tourists and residents…
The argument against having taxpayers (and only taxpayers - government is never ultimately stuck with any bill) pay for efforts to halt erosion is a good one. But this is happening everywhere, not just in Fort Myers Beach. Should the government spend billions keeping barrier islands that are mainly home to the affluent habitable? I think there are fine arguments either way, but these need to be addressed in full. Do we consign historic and beautiful communities to a slow, watery demise as the shoreline shifts in the coming decades, or do we preserve these communities at high taxpayer expense? Again, there is a total lack of acknowledgment of the tradeoffs.
How would “temporary, movable structures for tourists and residents” for tens of thousands of people work? Is it even possible? Who would be responsible for the costs of moving them every time a storm came? How would utilities function? This is a total pipedream.
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The drive to upscale residences is in the meantime resulting in an entrenchment rather than a retreat in places that will soon clearly become untenable. It’s less like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and more like constructing a house as it sinks.
Will it? For the most vulnerable places perhaps. But the fact that a resort made of small cottages built on a Florida barrier island a hundred years ago was still standing until Hurricane Ian makes me think the problem is not that urgent for many places.
The big problem I have with this article is the pie-in-the-sky attitude that there is a simple solution. Millions of Americans live within a quarter mile of the Atlantic Ocean. Tens of millions visit those beaches every year. They are not going to want to surrender the entire eastern seaboard to nature. Might we be fighting an impossible Sisyphean battle against the literal tides? Perhaps. But approaching the problem from that angle would require massive changes to entire industries and the forced upheaval of hundreds of thousands of people. That conversation needs to be had, and just complaining about how things are and presenting fanciful solutions doesn’t help anyone.