SANTA ROSA ISLAND, Fla. — He fired guns from the turret of warplanes, flew CIA missions in dangerous places, and never yielded to fear. Yet Gene Hudkins is retreating from the path of hurricanes, and who can blame him?
Ten years ago, Hurricane Opal wrecked the bottom floor of the splendid retirement house he had just finished here with his own hands, so he rebuilt. Hurricane Ivan did the same last year, so he went back to work. When Dennis did likewise in July — even before he finished fixing up from Ivan — Hudkins decided to sell out and move inland.
"I think it's time for me to find someplace … a retired person can sit and enjoy without fear," he said, taking a rest from ripping down spoiled siding.
Many Americans feel spooked by hurricanes like never before, but — a bit paradoxically — probably not enough to follow Hudkins. The nation is hardly backing off its coasts. Its fearlessness — some say foolishness — will invite many more wrecked towns and lives, at great cost to individuals and to the nation.
"Hurricanes by themselves aren't disasters. It's what people build in front of them that are disasters," warns John Maiolo, a sociologist at East Carolina University who has researched the social impact of hurricanes.
Two destructive years
Americans have just endured back-to-back the two most destructive hurricane seasons in history. Insured losses topped $54 billion this season, almost doubling last year's record, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Seven of history's 10 most damaging hurricanes whirled ashore since August 2004, peaking in the $40 billion-plus, record-setting Katrina that drowned New Orleans. Though this hurricane season officially ended Nov. 30, many forecasters predict an intensified cycle for years more. People are nervous, and maybe they should be.
Nonetheless, coastal construction is still booming in most places, and buyers are snapping up property at the usual fast-rising premiums, according to business groups. Even in the bull's-eyes of recent storms, local and national leaders pledge almost unwaveringly to rebuild. "They'll build more and bigger," predicts Orrin Pilkey, a coastal geologist at Duke University.
Who's to blame? Most everyone.
Americans covet their coastal lifestyle from the rocky beaches of the Northeast, to the palm-lined strands of the South, to the sandy bluffs of the West. A lopsided 53 percent inhabit the 25 percent of U.S. land that is coastal, under the definition of the U.S. Census Bureau. In hurricane alley, 98 percent of Floridians live in billowing coastal counties.
Unbowed by hurricanes and earthquakes, the U.S. coastal population has escalated by two-thirds since 1960, mirroring growth of the whole country, census data shows.
While poor people are stuck in some flood-prone flats, they are exceptions. Property prices usually rise with proximity to the shore. The average value of a coastal home has climbed to $308,845, almost 50 percent more than inland, according to Dataquick Information Systems. Tourists swarm to pricey coastal resorts, where they pay hundreds of dollars daily to soak up sun and wriggle their toes in sand.
The powers-that-be nearly always welcome such development, which boosts their resources and influence. More customers patronize local businesses; more taxpayers fatten revenue streams of local and state government. Influential developers get richer.
Even so, why would home buyers fork over disproportionate coastal prices in such risky places? Sound foolhardy? Not with a helping hand from the federal government, largely in the form of flood insurance. The program has exploded 16-fold since 1978 to cover more than $800 billion worth of assets. It backs policies that would often be unaffordable or unavailable from private insurers making a cold assessment of risks.
$23 billion in claims
Claims from this past season will surpass $23 billon, program spokesman Eugene Kinerney indicated. That's more than the total payouts in the system's 36-year history. Program leaders expect to borrow much of that from the U.S. Treasury — that's to say, the taxpayers. It's unclear when — or even if — they could repay it all.
"The federal government has been subsidizing rebuilding over and over and over again in these areas that get hit back hurricanes, and it's just crazy," says Rob Young, at Western Carolina University, who surveys damage after hurricanes.
Of course, the American ethic of private property rights also stands Godzilla-like behind almost any development or redevelopment scheme, even in places bound to be wrecked and wrecked again.
"We believe in property rights," proclaims Buck Lee, general manager of Santa Rosa Island's Pensacola Beach. "You got a piece of property and it's residential? You can build on it!"
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Over the past two hurricane seasons, a quarter of the single-family houses on Pensacola Beach were destroyed, local officials say. Church, school and commercial property was ravaged.
Less than four months after Hurricane Dennis, fresh construction rises everywhere in this resort community between the silent shells of disemboweled houses and swimming pools buried like dried-up oases under tons of sand. The thwack of hammers and whir of drills resonates across deep valleys of timber, concrete, mattresses and other detritus of uprooted lives. Hotels that were left intact by past storms have rooms filled with hurricane refugees from New Orleans.
The usual wild market in beach property has temporarily slumped, local real estate agents say. Reconstruction has yet to take off: building permits took an 18 percent nosedive over the first nine months of this year, compared to last year, around Pensacola, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
"On Sunday, you can go out and sit in the middle of the road, and nobody's going to run you over," broods property broker Nicole Wirth at Navarre Beach, another Santa Rosa Island resort.
Even so, asking prices reflect unshakable confidence in a comeback. A 100-by-100-foot empty sand pit on a three-block-wide sliver of island is yours for just under $800,000. On that very street, 60 percent of the homes were ruined over the past two summers.
Tales of such devastation — especially the chaos wreaked by Katrina — have seemingly pushed hurricane anxiety to a peak in recent months around much of the country, according to planners and real estate agents.
"I'm just sensing a lot more tension," says oceanographer Abby Sallenger, who does post-hurricane air surveys for the United States Geological Survey. "Katrina's going to be harder to forget about."
It was for some job candidates at Florida State University in Tallahassee. In recent interviews, they wanted to know exactly where the campus sits relative to the Gulf of Mexico, says professor Robert Deyle.
At a home show in Reston, Va., South Carolina real estate agents were wooing potential buyers. "When we tell people we're from the coastal areas, they say: 'No, we want to go inland,'" recalls owner Keith Roman at Weichert Realtors-Seaside Properties of Pawleys Island.
Yet willies don't seem to translate into unwillingness to buy, for the most part. "I think people just love to be naive," says Joanne Halls, a geographer at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who has studied population change in coastal zones.
Existing home sales, which include thousands of coastal communities, crackled at a near-record pace in September, despite raw memories of Katrina, according to the National Association of Realtors. Lawrence Yun, an economist there, says buyers still appear ready to trade the risks "to have the nice view of the coast."
Is change, then, hopeless? In recent years, Florida upgraded building codes to mandate stronger windows, walls and roofs in new buildings. Newer buildings have held up much better on Santa Rosa Island, local officials say. Many places still need stricter codes and better enforcement, many say.
Others favor steering population more sharply away from the riskiest coastal areas and bringing an end to the unquestioning readiness to rebuild. Higher insurance rates would shift more risk to the risk-takers — an idea often promoted by insurers who might benefit. Some demand a crackdown on national bailouts by cutting more repeat claims from the rolls of federal flood insurance and reining in reconstruction of roads and beaches.
"I have no problem helping somebody who's gone through a disaster," says Maiolo, the sociologist. "I have a problem with letting them do it again."
But the political will for a big shift toward safer development — even after the past two seasons of unremitting catastrophe — is limited so far. Washington quickly authorized more than $75 billion to help in the first few weeks after Katrina but did little to ensure it doesn't happen again elsewhere.
"It's a bigger sort of bill than we've had in a long time, but I think we're going to pay it. There doesn't seem to be any sort of movement to stop it," says political scientist Tom Birkland, at State University of New York-Albany, who studies how communities shake off disasters.
"Should they have ever built on these barrier islands? Probably not," says Dale McCarthy, who lives on Pensacola Beach. "But it's done. I live on one, and I love it!"
His house was flooded four times over the past decade. His solution was to rebuild smarter, this time on pilings. But they're only 15 feet high, well below the storm surges that Katrina kicked up to the west.
McCarthy's rebuilt home also has touches like etched glass around the fireplace — at least for the time being, until the next storm comes over the threshold.