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'Hurricane Highway' Islands: Rebuild Or Retreat?

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'Hurricane Highway' Islands: Rebuild Or Retreat?


'Hurricane Highway' Islands: Rebuild Or Retreat?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. The Atlantic hurricane season begins today as some people in coastal areas are still rebuilding from last year's hurricanes. It's become routine to rebuild at almost any cost, but as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, not always.

JON HAMILTON: This is a tale of two islands. The first is Dauphin Island. It's off the coast of Alabama, not far from Mobile. About 1,400 people live there. For decades now, hurricanes have been washing away houses built on the island's west end. There was Hurricane Frederic in 1979, Elena in 1985, Georges in 1998 and in 2005, Katrina.

JEFF COLLIER is the mayor of Dauphin and a lifelong resident.

Mayor JEFF COLLIER (Dauphin Island, Alabama): We lost about 350 homes in Katrina.

HAMILTON: But after each hurricane, people have rebuilt. And the government has stepped in to help restore damaged beaches and roads. Collier says the millions of dollars spent has been a good investment, because the island provides recreation for people and a sanctuary for wildlife. He also says that allowing the island to erode would make other places more vulnerable to hurricanes.

Mayor COLLIER: Barrier islands provide a certain level of protection to the mainland. So if we say, let the island go, it's only going to bring more damage to points north of us.

HAMILTON: And Collier says it would be unfair to single out his island.

Mayor COLLIER: Dauphin Island, yes, is a small community. But we have a lot of large communities that are on the shoreline, too. I mean, are we going to expect Miami Beach to just disappear someday?

HAMILTON: The prospect seems unthinkable today. But that's exactly what people decided to do with an island off the Louisiana coast more than 150 years ago.

This island was called Isle Derniere. Abby Sallenger, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey has written a book about it called, "Island in a Storm."

He says back in the 1850s Isle Derniere was a popular summer resort for people from places like New Orleans.

Mr. ABBY SALLENGER (Author, "Island in a Storm"): So if you had enough money you tended to leave the towns and the cities and plantations and you would go out to the coast and kind of relax in the cooling breezes.

HAMILTON: Sallenger says the island was always a risky place. For one thing, its highest point was only about 6 feet above the water. Also, it sat on shoreline that had been sinking for thousands of years. And then there was the island's location in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. SALLENGER: It was really like a highway for hurricanes. They come spinning into the gulf and then they make their right-hand turn to the north. And quite a few of them come through Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama, the panhandle of Florida.

HAMILTON: And sure enough, in August of 1856 a hurricane did come through, killing about half of the 400 people on Isle Derniere. Sallenger says a young woman named Emma Mille survived by clinging to a piece of debris as she was swept out to sea.

Mr. SALLENGER: When the storm went by and the wind switched, it actually drove her right back to where she started. And she was found along the beaches.

HAMILTON: Isle Derniere itself wasn't so lucky.

Mr. SALLENGER: The island was cut in half.

HAMILTON: Forming an inlet between the Gulf and the coastal waters.

Mr. SALLENGER: And that cutting of the inlet triggered a process that continued for another 150 years, a process of deterioration.

HAMILTON: But instead of trying to repair the island, or rebuild its permanent structures, people simply abandoned it. Sallenger says that made sense in 1856. And he says it might make sense in other places today.

Mr. SALLENGER: You know, many of our islands, unfortunately, if you take a hard look at them, you'll see similarities that are eerie.

HAMILTON: Dauphin Island is on that list. Its west end isn't much higher than Isle Derniere was 150 years ago. To make things worse, sea levels are rising, and we're in a period of high hurricane activity. So even Dauphin Island's Mayor Jeff Collier says it may no longer be possible to preserve the entire island.

Mayor COLLIER: Some people have lost their properties that are actually on the water.

HAMILTON: Just like Isle Derniere.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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