Ian explains the risks and costs of living in the barrier islands

Sanibel Island, Florida. – When Hurricane Ian It hit the Florida Gulf Coast, and washed up the basement of David Muench’s home on barrier island of Sanibel with several cars, a Harley Davidson and a boat.

His parents’ home was among the homes destroyed by a storm that killed at least two people there, and the only bridge to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off car access to the mainland for its 6,300 residents.

Hurricane Ian underscores the fragility of the nation’s barrier islands and the increasing costs of people living on thin strips of land parallel to the coast. like hurricanes become more destructiveExperts question whether these exposed communities can continue to rebuild in the face of climate change.

“This is an Katrina-level event where you have to rebuild everything, including the infrastructure,” said Jesse M. Keenan, professor of real estate in the Tulane University School of Architecture. “We can’t get everything back to how it was – we can’t afford that.”

Ian slammed into southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday with the highest wind speed in US history — roughly the same place where Hurricane Charlie, also a Category 4, caused major damage in 2004.

Of the 50 tropical cyclones that have reached 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 city’s website. Each posed a “significant threat to property and life on the island at some point in its life cycle”.

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

The latest storm has begun a new cycle of damage and repair in Sanibel that has been played out on many other barrier islands, from New Jersey beach And the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a strip of earth Along the Louisiana Coast.

Experts say the barrier islands have never been an ideal place for development. that they usually form Sediment is deposited off the mainland by waves. It moves based on weather patterns and other ocean forces. Some even disappear.

Building on the islands and keeping them in place through beach regeneration programs makes them more vulnerable to destruction because they can no longer move, according to experts.

“They move at the whims of storms,” ​​said Anna Linhous, professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University. “And if you build on it, you’re just waiting for a storm to take it away.”

After destroying parts of Florida, Ian made landfall again in South Carolina, where Pawleys Island was among the worst hit. Friday’s winds and rain shattered the main pier of the barrier island, one of several in the state that collapsed and washed away.

On Saturday, homeowners in a beach community 73 miles (120 kilometers) off the coast from Charleston struggled to assess damage from the storm. The bridges connecting the island to the mainland were filled with palm fronds, pine needles, and even kayaks retrieved from the nearby shore.

Like Pawleys, many barrier island communities have long-established tourist economies, which are often a source of significant tax money. At the same time, the cost of rebuilding it is often high because it is home to many expensive properties, such as vacation homes.

Said Robert S. Young, director of the Beaches Development Study Program, a joint venture between Duke University and Western Carolina University.

“We’re going to be asking for very little of that money in exchange for stepping back from places that are incredibly vulnerable and making sure we don’t have this kind of disaster again,” Young said.

Any major changes to the standard response to disasters will be complex, said Don Sheriffs, director of the Florida Environmental Defense Fund.

Challenges can include making decisions about who participates in programs that upgrade flood-prone homes, or who buys and demolishes those homes. Planting mangroves to prevent erosion may obscure someone’s vision.

Sheriffs said many homeowners bought their properties before people were fully aware of climate change and the dangers of sea level rise.

Keenan, a professor at Tulane University, said Hurricane Ian would undoubtedly change Sanibel, based on his research. There will be few government resources to help people rebuild. Those with fewer resources and those who are underinsured are more likely to move. People with financial resources will remain.

“Sanibel would just be a pocket for the very wealthy,” Keenan said.

But Munch, a Sanibel resident, said homeowners and business owners would definitely rebuild their properties.

His family has owned and operated a camping site on the island for three generations. He said the island is “heaven – we live in the most beautiful place on earth.”

“We will continue to be in Sanibel,” Munch, 52, of Fort Myers said Friday after the Sanibel evacuation. “Give us five years, and you might not even notice if you didn’t know.”


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

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