SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. – When Hurricane Ian Hit Florida’s Gulf Coast, washing away the bottom floor of David Muench’s home on the barrier island of Sanibel, along with several cars, a Harley-Davidson, and a boat.
His parents’ house was one of those destroyed by the storm that killed at least two people, and the lone bridge to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off road access to the mainland for its 6,300 residents. was closed.
Hurricane Ian underscores the fragility of the country’s barrier islands and the rising costs of people living on the thin strips of land along the coast. like hurricanes become more destructiveexperts question whether such 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, a real estate professor in Tulane University’s School of Architecture. “We can’t rebuild everything back to what it was — we can’t afford that.”
As a Category 4 hurricane, Ian slammed into southwest Florida on Wednesday with one of the highest wind speeds in U.S. history — in nearly the same spot where Hurricane Charley, also a Category 4, wreaked havoc in 2004.
Of the 50 tropical cyclones that have come within 100 nautical miles of the Fort Myers area since 1873, 23 have passed within 75 miles of Sanibel Island, according to the city’s website. Each posed “a significant threat to property and resides on the island at some point in its life cycle.”
In 1921, a massive hurricane destroyed half the landmass of neighboring Captiva and cut that island in half, according to the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village.
The latest storm has initiated a new cycle of damage and repair on Sanibel that is playing out on many other barrier islands, from the coast of New Jersey and North Carolina’s Outer Shores to a ribbon of land along the coast of Louisiana.
Barrier islands were never an ideal place for development, experts say. She typical shape when waves push sediment from the mainland. And they move based on weather patterns and other ocean forces. Some even disappear.
Building on the islands and keeping them in place with beach replenishment programs will only make them more vulnerable to destruction because they can no longer move, experts say.
“They move with the vagaries of the storms,” said Anna Linhoss, a professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University. “And if you build on them, you’re just waiting for a storm to take them away.”
After destroying parts of Florida, Ian made landfall again in South Carolina, where Pawleys Island was one of the hardest hit places. Friday’s winds and rain tore apart the barrier island’s main pier, one of several in the state to crumble and wash away.
On Saturday, homeowners in the beach community about 73 miles (120 kilometers) along the Charleston coast struggled to assess storm damage. The causeways connecting the island to the mainland were dotted with palm fronds, pine needles, and even a kayak retrieved from a nearby shoreline.
Like Pawleys Island, many barrier island communities anchor long-established tourist economies, which are often the source of crucial tax dollars. At the same time, the costs of rebuilding them are often high because they are home to many expensive properties, such as vacation homes.
“If a disaster like this happens, we will be pumping tens of billions of public dollars into these communities to help rebuild them,” said Robert S. Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, a joint venture between Duke University and Western Carolina University.
“And we’ll be asking very little for that money in the form of stepping back from places that are incredibly exposed to danger and making sure we never have a disaster like this again,” Young said.
But major changes to standard disaster management will be complicated, said Dawn Shirreffs, director of the Florida Environmental Defense Fund.
Challenges may include decisions about who participates in programs that upgrade flood-prone homes or programs that buy and demolish those homes. Planting mangroves to prevent erosion can eventually obscure one’s view.
Many homeowners bought their property before people were fully aware of climate change and the risks of sea-level rise, Shirreffs said.
Keenan, the Tulane professor, said Sanibel will undoubtedly be changed by Hurricane Ian, based on the research he has done. There will be less government resources to help people rebuild. Those with fewer resources and who are underinsured are likely to move. People with financial means stay.
“Sanibel will be just an enclave for the ultra-rich,” Keenan said.
But Sanibel resident Muench said homeowners and business owners will definitely rebuild their properties.
His family has owned and operated a campground on the island for three generations. The island, he said, is “a paradise — we live in the most beautiful place on Earth.”
“We 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 didn’t.”
Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Meg Kinnard in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, contributed to this story.
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