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

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
February 27, 2006
In the wake of last year's unprecedented hurricane damage in the United
States, questions are being raised about whether rebuilding should be
allowed on some of the most vulnerable coastlines.

During the past decade hurricanes have inflicted billions of dollars' worth of damage from Maryland to Texas. The past two summers have been especially fearsome, with a series of monster storms shredding the Gulf Coast.

But coastal real estate is still booming. And property rights advocates say those who own that real estate are entitled to use their land as they see fit.

On Florida's Santa Rosa Island just off Pensacola, the coastal land boom didn't stop even after Hurricane Ivan pounded the island in 2004.

"Prices went through the roof," said Dave Murzin, a member of the Florida House of Representatives who represents Pensacola.

Ivan was only one of a series of exceptionally powerful hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. in recent years.

Meteorologists say the cycle of active hurricane seasons began in 1995 and will continue for many years.

Still, destroyed and heavily damaged homes on Santa Rosa Island and elsewhere are being rebuilt, as are oceanfront hotels.

"It appears to me on the surface that we've learned very few lessons from the past couple of hurricane seasons," said Rob Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Young analyzes coastal hurricane damage for the federal government and the insurance industry.

"Americans have a very stalwart, plant-the-flag attitude about natural disasters," Young said. "They say, No hurricane is going to chase me off my beach.

"And as long as the federal government is backing them up by replacing the infrastructure, how can you blame them for wanting to rebuild? In many cases they're not the ones that have to assume all the risks."

Lessons From Katrina?

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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