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Coastal development invites hurricane damage.

As more and more homes are being built along the shoreline, their vulnerability to nature's fury becomes a problem with which legislation must deal.

HURRICANE ANDREW struck south of Miami, Fla., on Aug. 24,1992, and caused $20-30,000,000,000 in property damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in the history of the U.S. Andrew was a strong, but compact, hurricane and could have caused much more destruction had its track been a few miles farther north. The damage and human misery caused by Andrew raised questions about the type of development society should allow in hurricane-prone regions.

In 1900, when Galveston, Tex., was devastated by a hurricane, the government response was to construct a massive seawall along the front of all of the city and much of the entire island. In 1983, Hurricane Alicia struck Galveston and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. This time, the city issued a temporary moratorium on building permits for substantial repairs and reconstruction and hired additional inspectors to ensure that rebuilt structures would not be as susceptible to damage as they were before the storm. Erosion caused by the storm moved the coastal vegetation line farther inland, thereby moving the state-owned property line inland, and the state laid claim to the newly situated property, even though a number of private structures were located seaward of the new line. In nearby Baytown on Galveston Bay, almost all of the 300 homes in a housing subdivision that had a recurrent flooding problem caused by subsidence were purchased under a Federal program, and the land was given to the local government to be maintained as open space.

These policies reflect a shift over the years in attitudes toward the occupation of coastal areas. Today, there is less willingness to allow inherently vulnerable development to be placed in harm's way, reduced emphasis upon modifying hurricane-prone areas to make them more amenable to development, and more effort to require that growth in these areas be modified to mitigate the effects of the hazards indigenous to the ocean shore.

Wind is the component of hurricanes that affects the largest number of coastal residents because it extends farthest inland. Winds in Hurricane Hugo, for example, resulted in severe damage in Charlotte, N.C., almost 200 miles from the coast. The vast majority of the damage from Andrew was caused by wind in communities away from the open coast in south Florida. Housing and other buildings can be constructed affordably to withstand wind in most hurricanes, and about half the Gulf and Atlantic states either have statewide building codes addressing wind resistance in hurricanes or require communities to adopt one of three model codes developed by organizations that specialize in that activity. Although there is professional disagreement as to the adequacy of particular codes, the majority of engineers agree that most hurricane wind damage occurs due to lack of compliance with codes already in place. South Florida has one of the strongest and most enforceable building codes in the nation, but much of Andrew's damage occurred in homes that did not comply with it.

Mobile homes create a special problem. They experience major damage even in moderate hurricanes, and their windblown debris causes further destruction to other structures. After Andrew, at least one community in south Florida imposed a moratorium on new mobile homes until its policy on them could be reviewed. Many communities require that mobile home parks have a building that can serve as a safe shelter during hurricanes.

Driving along the coast today, one can't help noticing that most structures, whether beach bungalows or condos, are elevated several feet above the ground, sometimes high enough to allow automobile parking beneath them. They are built that way to escape flooding and wave battering in hurricanes.

A few communities such as Warwick, R.I., have had regulations requiring elevation in flood-prone coastal areas for many years, but most have been enacted since the early 1970s as a result of Federal legislation. Before 1968, flood insurance was not available in the U.S. Since that year, the Federal government has made flood insurance available in communities that agree to pass regulations requiring that structures be elevated above the height reached by flooding once every 100 years.

Shorelines are unstable. Most beaches in the U.S. slowly are eroding as a result of natural sea level rise, and, during hurricanes, they do so rapidly. The erosion removes sand from the beach and carries it offshore. If a building was resting upon the sand, the building collapses. Because of the erosion hazard and since this is the zone where much of the wave energy in hurricanes is expended, this is the most dangerous of all coastal areas during such a storm. Even on narrow barrier islands, the damage typically is much worse on the ocean-facing side.

About half the states and communities along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts have enacted laws generally referred to as setback regulations in recognition of the fact that beaches are going to recede during hurricanes and, in many cases, slowly over the years even if there is no hurricane. North Carolina's Coastal Area Management Act often is cited as an example. One of its provisions is to restrict severely the types of new development that can occur at various distances from the shoreline. One zone extends to the line to which erosion would occur in a 100-year hurricane, while another is defined in terms of long-term erosion. Larger structures must be set back farther than smaller ones. Most observers believe that the law has worked well in North Carolina, but a more recent setback law in South Carolina has been found by courts to constitute a taking of certain properties and could cost the state millions of dollars to implement.

When extenuating circumstances dictate that states allow construction within the setback zones, buildings normally are required to sink pilings deeply enough that they would remain supported even if several vertical feet of sand were eroded from beneath them. In general, though, the effect of setback laws is more visually dramatic than building codes and elevation requirements. Rather than simply changing the manner in which structures are built, they alter the location of structures, creating "open" beaches. If buildings are not susceptible to imminent collapse due to the threat of undermining by erosion, there will be less need for alterations of the beach such as seawalls, groins, breakwaters, and pumping sand onto it to create artificial beaches and dunes.

Protecting natural protection

Florida is famous for its canal developments, created from marshland. The original sites were too low to build upon, so certain areas were excavated and the removed soil dumped onto other sites to increase their elevation a few feet. The dredged areas created a system of finger canals leading to navigable waters, and the adjacent filled areas became waterfront lots. Although the lots were made habitable, they are some of the most hazardous sites in the state during hurricanes, due to their low elevation and proximity to water.

Marshes, and wetlands in general, are recognized for their ecological value, but they also provide an energy buffer for upland sites during hurricanes. A variety of Federal programs now prevent dredge-and-fill canal developments, and most coastal states also have their own wetland protection regulations. Perhaps it is even more obvious that sand dunes offer the same sort of protection in storms. Most states and more than one-third of the communities on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts have regulations protecting sand dunes from alterations.

Facing the constitutional constraints, political realities, and uncertain economic wisdom of a government intervening in the development process, public officials do have other options. One is public acquisition--that is, to buy property outright and then maintain it in whatever public use the government sees fit. Although this has been done frequently and there are numerous funding sources for it, coastal property, especially beachfront land, is so expensive that significant portions of coastal areas are unlikely ever to come to the public domain.

A much more interesting policy is for governments to refuse to spend public funds that would encourage hurricane-prone development. When Hurricane Frederic struck in 1979, Dauphin Island, Ala., was sparsely developed. Frederic destroyed the causeway that linked the island with the mainland, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opposed the use of Federal funds to rebuild the structure. Its position was that a causeway would encourage further loss-prone development on the island by providing access to it. The existing population could be served adequately, even for hurricane evacuation, the agency argued, by providing two ferries, rather than a bridge. The ferries, however, would not provide such access so as to encourage as much future development as a causeway would. FEMA lost the argument to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the structure was rebuilt.

Although that effort failed, an innovative law enacted in 1982 applied such reasoning to a large part of the shoreline. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CoBRA) identified currently undeveloped parts of the coastline and prohibited the use of Federal funds for construction of roads, bridges, buildings, and other facilities in those areas. Insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program and Federal disaster assistance also were denied in those locations. It might not be feasible to deny those uses of Federal funds in developed areas, but it was sensible to do so for regions not already having populations needing to be served by the government. The Federal government wanted to avoid investing in facilities which themselves would be damaged in hurricanes and whose presence could attract and facilitate private development that could create demand for post-disaster assistance. A few state and local governments have followed suit, and this approach is likely to extend in the future to areas not covered by CoBRA.

Lots of communities would like to place a cap on growth in order to maintain a more manageable set of infrastructure and service obligations, prevent excessive demands on the natural environment, and generally preserve a quality of life they prefer. Growth caps have been hard to implement and even more difficult to defend in court, but Sanibel Island in Florida found a unique solution in 1980. Sanibel consultants calculated the amount of people they believed could be evacuated safely from the island and based a growth cap on that number, maintaining that it would be irresponsible to allow more inhabitants than could be moved safely.

The state of Florida has incorporated that logic into the permitting of large developments in hurricane-prone areas. All large developments and others that will have impacts beyond the boundaries of the local jurisdiction in which they reside are designated as Developments of Regional Impact (DRIs) and must get state and regional in addition to local approval. If the DRI would have a significant adverse impact on a community's ability to evacuate safely or shelter the local population in a hurricane, the development is required to mitigate that effect in order to receive a permit. Impacts can be mitigated by donating land or use of facilities for public shelters, making payments for existing public shelters to be upgraded or expanded, establishing on-site shelters for residents, providing funds for training public shelter managers, educating residents about the hurricane threat, elevating roads above surge inundation levels, increasing roadway capacities, or providing funds for use by local government to improve warning and notification capabilities. If these mitigation options are insufficient, the size or density of the development might be reduced or its permit denied. Numerous developments, mostly on the west coast of the state, have been affected by the law to date.

After the storm

Observers sometimes look at a densely developed shoreline, with poorly constructed buildings located too near the water's edge, and speculate about the opportunities to redo things more wisely if a strong hurricane were to come along and wipe the coast clean. Hurricanes don't actually wipe the coast clean, however. Typically, there is a mix of damages ranging from total to cosmetic; pressures to rebuild the economic base are great; there is sympathy for disaster victims anxious to restore their homes; skilled labor and materials for reconstruction are in short supply; and regulatory authorities are strapped for time and resources.

Nevertheless, post-storm environments afford opportunities not otherwise available for development regulation. Restrictions normally "grandfather" noncompliant buildings and facilities already present when new regulations are enacted. Substantial improvements or repairs to pre-existing uses are subject to the new rules, however. Experience with post-hurricane reconstruction and redevelopment has been a mixed bag. Successful examples from Texas following Alicia in 1983 were cited earlier, but there have been other instances that have had different outcomes.

Before Frederic in 1979, development in Gulf Shores, Ala. (on the other side of Mobile Bay from Dauphin Island) consisted mainly of low- to medium-density construction--beach cottages, motels, and two-story condos. Frederic destroyed or substantially damaged much of the beachfront property, even though the newer construction was elevated in compliance with flood insurance regulations. The redevelopment was much more dense than what had preceded Frederic.

The state had enacted a 40-foot setback line shortly before Frederic, but local governments were given the option of administering the law themselves, and Gulf Shores elected to do so. After Frederic, the local government granted a variance for the business and tourist district of the city, requiring only a five-foot setback in that section. This was the area which immediately attracted multi-story condominiums and motels. To make matters worse, when Frederic struck, the town had no side-setback. That is, there was no minimum distance that had to be maintained between buildings, and in places the redevelopment was almost wall-to-wall. The setback distance was specified by the law in relationship to the location of the primary dune, which also was destroyed by Frederic. The state required more than a year after the storm to produce maps for making setback determinations in absence of the dunes, further diminishing the effectiveness of the regulation during a crucial period.

Many pre-existing structures did not conform with either the new setback law or flood insurance elevation requirements, and those that had suffered substantial damage in Frederic should have been subjected to the new regulations. Even though substantial damage was defined numerically (50% for the flood insurance program), officials chose to set a very high standard for substantial damage in numerous instances, allowing many buildings to be reconstructed without complying with the current regulations. The city explicitly rejected proposals to rebuild the beach road and main sewer line farther inland and to place utility lines underground.

The massive rebuilding was good for the city's fiscal health, but increased the vulnerability to future hurricanes. The community at large was not pleased with the post-storm redevelopment decisions and, in the next election a year later, the mayor and all but one of the city commissioners were voted out of office. During the ensuing years, the city's development policies changed significantly, but the Gulf Shores example illustrates the problems encountered by elected officials immediately after a hurricane disaster. There is much emotion, urgency, and impatience. Officials will be better prepared to cope with the situation if they anticipate it in advance and plan how to deal with it.

That recognition has given rise to the notion of post-disaster redevelopment planning. In fact, the options available for development policy are no different after a hurricane than they were before. The idea of planning for the post-storm period is to acknowledge that there will be an opportunity to deal with nonconforming uses and could be increased sentiment to avoid future losses, but there also will be pressures to relax the rules. Officials who are forewarned of what they will face, commit in advance to the political resolve they will need, and are armed with a detailed, explicit, and thorough redevelopment policy document that was debated publicly and adopted before the disaster will have the best chance of not becoming another Gulf Shores. Nag's Head, N.C., and Hilton Head, S.C., are examples of towns that have developed such plans. In Florida, a recent state law requires that all coastal communities do so.
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Author:Baker, Earl J.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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