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November 3, 2022

‘On Borrowed Time.’ Why coastal Florida keeps rebuilding after storms like Hurricane Ian

Southwest Florida has already answered the immediate question after Hurricane Ian slammed into the coast, killing dozens of people and destroying thousands of homes with record-high storm surge: Will we rebuild? The answer — yes, of course — is practically a given in storm-prone Florida, despite the double whammy of an exploding population on the coast and climate change raising the risk of hurricanes with deadly coastal flooding. That combination may one day force the conversation on retreating from these dangerous places, but for now, in Florida, the focus has shifted to how we will rebuild.

 

Elected officials like U.S. Sen. Rick Scott have already talked about updating the building code, renovating older buildings and leaning into stricter building standards. But the best window into what post-storm rebuilding may look like may be in the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Michael smashed the community of Mexico Beach in 2018 with Category 5 winds and storm surge that flattened much of the waterfront vacation community to the ground. More than 93% of the 1,600 buildings in town were damaged.

 

In response, city leaders vowed to build back stronger. They changed the building codes so that new homes would have to be built higher.

Before Michael hit, new or redeveloped Mexico Beach homes inside the floodplain only had to meet the state minimum: one foot over whatever height the Federal Emergency Management Agency sets. The new rules increased the number of houses that would have to be raised, pushing new construction up several feet higher depending on the location.

 

Two years later, under a mountain of complaints from residents who resented the higher building costs that come with elevating homes and scoffed that such a powerful storm would ever hit again, Mexico Beach undid its groundbreaking work. The building code for elevation was rolled back. How much? Four years after an estimated $25 billion in damage and 59 deaths, some new Mexico Beach homes in spots hit by more than six feet of storm surge now will be required to be built only six inches higher off the ground than before — just above the minimum set by Florida’s building code. Individuals can choose to go higher, but the code is what most owners and contractors tend to follow.

 

WHY REBUILDING BETTER IS SO HARD 

 

It’s all but a certainty that Southwest Florida will overall be built back stronger after Ian. The question becomes, how much stronger? Florida has one of the best building codes in the world against wind damage, a legacy of Hurricane Andrew’s destruction in 1992, and the Florida Building Code is updated every three years. So the thousands of homes that were wiped out or mostly destroyed by Ian will have to build back to the newest version of the code — with stronger roofs, shutters for windows and doors, and sometimes, properties built higher off the ground.

 

That will likely be a huge difference for Southwest Florida, said Anne Cope, chief engineer for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. According to U.S. Census data, only about 30% of homes in the seven counties hardest hit by Ian were built after 2002, which is when the new post-Andrew codes kicked in.

 

The problem in Florida is that every extra foot of elevation, every swap to a new type of nail or impact window, is a fight. Stricter building standards save lives, but they also raise costs for home builders and home buyers. Opponents of stronger building standards often cite the very real issue of affordability in the state, which is facing a housing crisis in many major cities.

 

Will Ian Send People Packing

 

Ian, like every hurricane that made landfall before, will be the last straw for at least some people, who will move on for economic or other reasons. But most experts are skeptical that a single storm — even one as powerful and widespread as Ian — will galvanize a wholesale retreat from Florida’s storm- and flood-prone coast. “Florida has seen lots of apocalyptic disasters. As long as it’s a storm-based event, people are not going to dramatically switch where they live,” said Linda Shi, assistant professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. “I’m not sure that politically people are going to be willing to really change until a permanent crisis arrives at their doorstep.”

 

But Florida has weathered back-to-back storms before, so even that isn’t a given. Instead, experts say a more likely push away from the coast will come from rising seas. Decades from now, if sea level rise outpaces efforts to elevate homes, buildings and roads, it could lead to permanent inundation in some of the lowest-lying places in the country, like South Florida.

 

If the world doesn’t stop burning fossil fuels, places like the Keys and Miami could be literally underwater by the end of the century. “We’re not going to be able to hide from the rising seas too much longer,” said Strader. “People don’t think we need to do something now because it’s so far down the road, but it’s happening now.”

 

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Source: Alex Harris

 

Alex Harris is the lead climate change reporter for the Miami Herald’s climate team, which covers how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. Her beat also includes environmental issues and hurricanes. She attended the University of Florida.

 

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