Ian shows the risks and costs of living on barrier islands

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — As Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s Gulf Coast, it washed out the lower level of David Muench’s home on offshore Sanibel Island along with several cars, a Harley-Davidson and a boat.

His parents’ home was among those destroyed by the storm, killing at least two people there, and the lone bridge to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off car access to the mainland for the 6,300 residents.

Hurricane Ian underscores the vulnerability of the country’s barrier islands and the rising costs for people living on the narrow strips of land parallel to the coast. As hurricanes become more destructive, experts wonder if such vulnerable communities can continue to rebuild in the face of climate change.

“This is a Hurricane Katrina-scale event that requires everything to be rebuilt, including infrastructure,” said Jesse M. Keenan, real estate professor in Tulane University’s School of Architecture. “We can’t restore everything to what it was – we can’t afford that.”

Ian struck southwest Florida Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with one of the highest wind speeds in U.S. history — in much the same location where Hurricane Charley, also a Category 4 hurricane, wreaked havoc in 2004.

Of the 50 tropical cyclones that have come within 100 nautical miles of Fort Myers since 1873, 23 were hurricanes that were within 75 miles (120 kilometers) of Sanibel Island, according to the city’s website. Each posed “a significant threat to property and lives on the island at some point in their life cycle”.

In 1921, a massive hurricane wiped out half the landmass of neighboring Captiva and split the island in two, according to the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village.

The latest storm has triggered a new cycle of damage and repairs on Sanibel that is playing out on many other barrier islands, from the New Jersey coast and North Carolina’s Outer Banks to a strip of land along the Louisiana coast.

Barrier islands have never been an ideal place for development, experts say. They typically form when waves deposit sediments off the mainland. And they move based on weather patterns and other ocean forces. Some even disappear.

Building on the islands and holding them in place with beach-replenishment programs will only make them more vulnerable to destruction, experts say, because they can no longer move.

“They move at the whim of the storm,” said Anna Linhoss, a professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University. “And if you build on it, you’re just waiting for a storm to carry it away.”

After devastating parts of Florida, Ian landed again in South Carolina, where Pawleys Island was among the hardest-hit locations. Friday’s winds and rain broke apart the main barrier island pier, one of several in the state to crumble and wash away.

On Saturday, homeowners in the beach community, about 120 kilometers offshore from Charleston, were struggling to assess the damage from the storm. The causeways connecting the island to the mainland were littered with palm fronds, pine needles and even a kayak salvaged from a nearby shore.

Like Pawleys Island, many barrier island communities have long-established tourism economies that are often the source of crucial taxpayer dollars. At the same time, the cost of rebuilding is often high, as it houses many expensive properties such as holiday homes.

“If a disaster like this happens, we will pour tens of billions of public dollars into these communities to help them rebuild,” said Robert S. Young, director of the Developed Coastline Study Program, a Duke joint venture University and Western Carolina University.

“And we’re going to ask very little for that money in return, to take a step back from places that face incredible dangers and make sure we never have a disaster like this again,” Young said.

But any major changes to default disaster response will be complicated, said Dawn Shirreffs, Florida director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Challenges could include decisions about who participates in programs that increase flood-prone homes or programs that buy and demolish those homes. Planting mangroves to prevent erosion could end up blocking someone’s view.

Many homeowners bought their homes before people were aware of climate change and the risks of sea level rise, Shirreffs said.

Keenan, the Tulane professor, said Sanibel will undoubtedly be transformed by Hurricane Ian based on research he has conducted. There will be fewer government funds available to help people rebuild. Those with fewer means and who are underinsured are likely to relocate. People with financial means will stay.

“Sanibel will only be an enclave for the ultra-rich,” Keenan said.

But Muench, the Sanibel resident, said homeowners and business owners would certainly rebuild their properties.

His family has owned and operated a campground on the island for three generations. The island, he said, is “paradise – we live in the most beautiful place in the world”.

“We will continue to exist on Sanibel,” Muench, 52, said Friday from Fort Myers after evacuating Sanibel. “Give us five years and you might not even notice if you don’t know.”


Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Fla. and Meg Kinnard in Pawleys Island, South Carolina contributed to this story.

https://www.wfla.com/news/florida/ian-shows-the-risks-and-costs-of-living-on-barrier-islands/ Ian shows the risks and costs of living on barrier islands

Russell Falcon

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