Hurricanes Fail to Dampen Coastal Building Boom

Along the Gulf Coast, a building boom has put more and more property at risk to hurricanes. On Dauphin Island, off the coast of Alabama, homeowners are talking about rebuilding as quickly as possible, despite predictions that hurricane activity is on the increase.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This year's hurricanes are overwhelming the National Flood Insurance Program.

Mr. DAVID MAURSTAD (FEMA Mitigation Director): We estimate that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will result in flood insurance claims at least eight times the highest number filed from any single event in NFIP's history.

SIEGEL: That's FEMA's mitigation director David Maurstad. He estimates that claims could exceed $23 billion, and premiums won't cover it all. So the program will need to borrow billions more from the federal government.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A large share of the money will go to rebuild areas that have flooded repeatedly and probably will again. Some are barrier islands that are little more than sandbars, and some are so unstable in storms, there are questions about whether they should be developed at all. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Hurricane Katrina made landfall well west of Dauphin Island, which lies just south of Mobile, Alabama, but the storm surge and waves wreaked havoc. Real estate agent Kathy Hebbert(ph) rents out vacation homes here.

Ms. KATHY HEBBERT (Real Estate Agent): We had about 75 homes that we rented, and we have about 12 that could be rented at this time, and we have some that could be repaired.

SCHALCH: Hebbert's ankle deep in water at the west end of the island, where one of those houses stood.

Ms. HEBBERT: And, as you can see, there's not really anything there.

SCHALCH: Just a few splintered stumps where the pilings used to be. Dauphin Island's Mayor Jeff Collier had to do some detective work just to tally up the damage.

Mayor JEFF COLLIER (Dauphin Island, Alabama): We had to actually go and get our water meter list from the water and sewer authority, so that we could identify where houses should have been.

SCHALCH: Two hundred homes were swept away; a hundred more may have to be demolished. Katrina's storm surge also scooped up part of the island itself, dumping it inland as much as 500 feet. It's not uncommon for sandy barrier islands to migrate toward the shore during storms.

Mayor COLLIER: Anything that was lost on the south side has now been transported over to the north side, and so the whole island virtually just, as they say, rolls over. But unfortunately for those folks who live along the Gulf side, it's not such a pretty picture. And, you know, the Gulf now is under their homes or has completely claimed their property, whereas people on the north side have a lot more back yard.

SCHALCH: The plan is to roll Dauphin Island back.

(Soundbite of backhoes)

SCHALCH: Surrounding Mayor Collier are hills of sand, like piles of snow heaped up after a blizzard only bigger. Behind him backhoes pick away at a sand mountain, dumping shovelfuls onto a conveyor belt, which is straining out chunks of debris.

Mayor COLLIER: They're in the process of trying to sift this out, so that once it's put back on the beach again, it'll be safe for people to use and play in.

SCHALCH: When all of this, the island and the houses, get rebuilt, taxpayers may pick up much of the tab. Every time there's a hurricane--and there have been six here since 1979--property owners on Dauphin Island collect flood insurance. Most do what Kathy Hebbert did.

Ms. HEBBERT: This is where our house was before Ivan, which was--What?--last September, and we lost the house and decided to rebuild.

SCHALCH: This new house sits atop rows of sturdy, 16-foot pilings. It's the only one on this stretch of beach that's still standing.

Ms. HEBBERT: I think the surge was about 15 feet, and I think we missed it maybe by a foot or so perhaps.

SCHALCH: But Andrew Coburn, a coastal geologist at Duke University, says there's no telling what will happen next time.

Mr. ANDREW COBURN (Coastal Geologist, Duke University): It doesn't take a lot of wind, it doesn't take a lot of waves, it doesn't take a lot of surge to move these bodies of sand around. And when we place development--houses, condos, roads, septic systems, you name it--in these locations, we're really setting ourselves up for disaster.

SCHALCH: And, he says, it's expensive. Dauphin Island has received more than $20 million in flood payments over the years, with two-thirds of the money going to properties with multiple claims. Coburn says by covering losses that private insurers won't and charging premiums that don't reflect the true risk, the program spawns more development and sets the stage for more losses. He says there are other costs as well.

Mr. COBURN: The federal government's probably spending an average of $150 million a year putting sand on beaches all along the eastern Gulf and even the West Coast. Why is the government in the business of doing this?

SCHALCH: Well, coastal communities depend on it, and people are flocking to them. In fact, according to one recent study, a thousand new residents move to beach areas vulnerable to hurricanes every day. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Mobile, Alabama.

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