Ian shows the risks and costs of living on barrier islands

SANIBEL ISLAND, Florida – When Hurricane Ian hit the Gulf Coast of Florida, it swept away the ground floor of David Muench’s home on Sanibel’s barrier island, along with several cars, a Harley -Davidson and a boat.

His parents’ home was among those destroyed by the storm which killed at least two people there, and the only bridge leading to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off car access to the mainland for his children. 6,300 inhabitants.

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

“This is a Hurricane Katrina-scale event, where you have to rebuild everything, including infrastructure,” said Jesse M. Keenan, professor of real estate at the school of architecture. from Tulane University. “We can’t rebuild everything to what it was – we can’t afford it.”

Ian slammed into southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday with one of the highest wind speeds in US history – around the same spot where Hurricane Charley , also a category 4, caused major damage in 2004.

Of the 50 tropical cyclones that have passed within 100 nautical miles of the Fort Myers area since 1873, 23 have been hurricanes that have passed within 75 miles (120 kilometers) of Sanibel Island, according to the site. City internet. Each posed “a significant threat to property and live on the island at some point in their life cycle.”

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

The latest storm has kicked off a new cycle of damage and repairs on Sanibel that is unfolding across many other barrier islands, from the New Jersey Shore and North Carolina’s Outer Banks to a sliver of land along the coast. of Louisiana.

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

Building on the islands and keeping them in place with beach replenishment programs just makes them more vulnerable to destruction because they can no longer move, experts say.

“They move with the storms,” ​​said Anna Linhoss, professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University. “And if you build on them, you just wait for a storm to wash them away.”

After devastating parts of Florida, Ian made landfall again in South Carolina, where Pawleys Island was among the hardest hit locations. Friday’s winds and rain shattered the main pier on the barrier island, one of several in the state to collapse and be swept away.

On Saturday, property owners at the beach community about 120 miles up the Charleston coast struggled to assess storm damage. The causeways connecting the island to the mainland were strewn with palm fronds, pine needles and even a kayak salvaged from a nearby shore.

Like Pawleys Island, many barrier island communities are the anchor of long-established tourism economies, which are often the source of crucial tax revenues. At the same time, the cost of rebuilding them is often high because they house many expensive properties, such as vacation homes.

“When there is a disaster like this, we will pour tens of billions of public dollars into these communities to help them rebuild,” said Robert S. Young, director of the Developed Shorelines Survey Program, which is a joint venture between Duke University and Western Carolina University.

“And we’ll ask for very little for that money in return by stepping back from places that are incredibly exposed to danger and making sure we never have that kind of disaster again,” Young said.

But any significant change in standard disaster response will be complicated, said Dawn Shirreffs, director of the Environmental Defense Fund in Florida.

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

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

Keenan, the Tulane professor, said Sanibel would undoubtedly be altered by Hurricane Ian, based on the research he has done. There will be fewer government resources to help people rebuild. Those with less means and who are underinsured are likely to move. People with financial means will stay.

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

But Muench, the Sanibel resident, said homeowners and business owners are sure to 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 on Earth”.

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

About Daisy Rawson

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