Hurricanes vs. Homes: Should Building on U.S. Coasts Be Stopped?

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Young said he was "speechless, just stunned" when he saw the damage done by Hurricane Katrina.

That storm, which struck Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005, killed more than 1,300 people and was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. (See National Geographic magazine's "Special Edition: Katrina.")

Young was aboard a plane that flew over the Gulf Coast after Katrina had passed. In some places the hurricane's massive storm surge swept beaches clean of buildings and shoved the debris into huge piles a quarter-mile (four-tenths of a kilometer) inland, he said.

There's more to rebuilding oceanfront property than just replacing the buildings, however. Roads, bridges, utility lines, water and sewer pipes, and other supporting services have to be rebuilt.

Much of those costs are paid by taxpayers who don't live anywhere near the water, said John Maiolo, a sociologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

"We have to index the cost of repairs to the cost of owning [coastal property]," Maiolo said.

"I can go out to Nags Head [on North Carolina's Outer Banks], buy a house, sell it in a year, and make half a million dollars," Maiolo said.

"People down there are building and selling and buying, and somebody else is paying the bill. We've got to find some way to make them pay the bill."

"The fact that we're allowing so much building to occur almost at sea level is criminal," Maiolo added.

Differing Visions

Murzin, the Florida state representative, disagrees.

"There's probably a small segment of society that says, Don't rebuild on a barrier island," Murzin said. "But how do you compensate the landowner for the loss of property?

"If you want to write a check for what that property is worth, then that might solve the problem. But we don't have the resources to spend billions upon billions to buy out personal property rights on barrier islands."

The way to prevent heavy damage from hurricanes is to enforce strict building codes on coastal property, Murzin said.

"The buildings that are being rebuilt or going up should be built to strong building codes," he said. "They should withstand high winds and be high enough to be above the storm surges."

There is one point of agreement among those who call for more restrictions on coastal development and those who oppose such regulations: Despite the risks, people will always want to live where they can see the water.

In 1960 about 80 million people in the U.S. lived in coastal areas, including the Great Lakes. Thirty years later population in those areas was about 110 million. By 2010 the figure is predicted to be 127 million.

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