Proposal On Table To Use FEMA and Other Government Monies To Buy Waterfront Properties Devastated by Hurricanes


Pensacola News Journal

Page 16A

It is time again to rethink how we build on barrier islands

As the rebuilding of our barrier islands and beaches begins, as always in the aftermath of a hurricane it is time to reconsider how we build on these fragile coastal areas.

If we do what has always been done before, here and elsewhere, we will simply rebuild right up to the edge of the water. And we'll rebuild bigger, more expensive homes and businesses.

That demonstrates a resilient spirit, but begs the important question: What happens if the next hurricane is worse?

Or if, as scientists say, hurricanes are becoming more frequent?

There's a lot of talk about how stronger building codes protected newer structures better than those built under earlier, less stringent codes. And that's true. But on the beaches there still was damage to the vast majority of homes and businesses, and perhaps to every single one.

And if, as scientists say, the last nine years have merely been the precursor to a long and worsening hurricane cycle, better building codes might not provide the kind of protection people are hoping for on the low-lying spits of sand that are our barrier islands.

When storms pack the power to cut channels through Santa Rosa Island, better building codes tend to lose their significance.

We need to talk about other things, too.

For instance, Hurricane Ivan did tremendous damage to publicly funded infrastructure such as roads and sewer and water systems. Millions more in public money is likely to be spent on emergency assistance and cleanup on the beaches and other low-lying areas where the damage appears to have been the worst, especially because of the main hazard connected to building there: the storm surge.

The four hurricanes that have rocked Florida so far in this hurricane season -- which still has almost two months to go -- are likely to cause "sticker shock" on future insurance premiums. Already there is speculation that soaring premiums could make it difficult to build in Florida -- assuming insurance companies remain willing to offer hurricane insurance in this state.

That might seem far-fetched now -- but what if the 2005 hurricane season comes even close to repeating this one?

One rational response by the federal and state governments would be to use FEMA and other monies to begin buying -- at fair market prices -- waterfront properties and leases on barrier islands and other areas prone to storm surges and the worst storm winds. After storms like Ivan there are likely to be many people with damaged and destroyed homes willing to cash out for a fair price.

By slowly pulling back from the brink, future storms would do less property damage. That would hold down insurance losses (and thus premiums), reduce the cost of repairs to public infrastructure, and even allow restoration of the primary dune line on barrier islands, providing added future protection for areas north of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

Local, state and federal governments, through various policies, encourage and even subsidize growth in high-hazard areas. That leads to higher public costs, and even higher private costs in terms of taxes and insurance premiums, when storms hit.

Policies that help do the opposite would represent a rational response to the repeated destruction along Florida's coast.

Government should buy waterfront properties prone to storm surges.









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