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Gulf Coast Rebuilding Creates Its Own Storm

Scientists say that in an era of rising sea levels and record hurricane activity, it's unwise to allow risky development along the coast.

October 23, 2005|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Hurricane Katrina's trail of ruin hasn't dampened the appetite for hazardous real estate on the Gulf Coast, where local communities are talking of rebuilding bigger than ever along the shore despite the warnings of experts that it is time to pull back and curtail federal subsidies that promote beach development.

On the battered Mississippi coast, developers are already courting local officials.

"I was on the phone with a condominium investor that is just very, very excited, very anxious to get going right there on that beachfront -- actually in one of the lower elevations," said Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr, more than a month after Katrina ravaged a third of his city.

Mississippi just adopted legislation allowing the state's multibillion-dollar dockside casino industry to move onshore, and Warr said land values on the demolished coastline were "appreciating every single day." He tells developers they may want to rethink their pre-Katrina plans because they're probably not grand enough for the new Gulf Coast officials envision.

Civic leaders say they can rebuild with new codes to improve hurricane resistance.

"I don't foresee us not rebuilding businesses on that coastline. They'll just be built smarter," said Kimberly Nastasi Crim, executive director of the Biloxi, Miss., Chamber of Commerce.

While locals plot reinvention, coastal experts say retreat would be a wiser move in this era of rising sea levels and record hurricane activity.

"If the Alabama-Mississippi coast doesn't present a case for time to move back, then I don't know what does," said Orrin H. Pilkey, director of Duke University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

He and others complain that the federally backed National Flood Insurance Program -- which is expecting more than $20 billion in Katrina and Rita claims -- is just one way the government encourages risky coastal development.

Billions in federal money also help rebuild highways and bridges and beaches destroyed in hurricanes, fund low-interest reconstruction loans to homeowners who lack flood insurance and back tax write-offs for storm losses.

In a paper published last year in the University of Colorado Law Review, Oliver Houck, director of Tulane University's environmental law program, analyzed federal spending and subsidies on Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, Grand Isle. Trashed by Katrina, Grand Isle has been pummeled by 50 major storms in the last 130 years.

When spending on roads and beach rebuilding was added to home mortgage deductions and flood insurance claims, the total federal investment in Grand Isle amounted to $439,000 a home. Subtract the island's vacation houses and the subsidy jumped to $1.28 million each for its 622 year-around residences.

"The United States is fueling and funding the high-risk, hurricane-prone coastal development," Houck said. "I think we need to cut off the funding to that kind of development, and we ought to be buying up those areas. We need to move people back."

But the value of coastal real estate, local government's reliance on it for tax revenue and Americans' romance with the beach conspire against a retreat.

"You know, telling somebody to leave their home and never come back is a dreadful thing. It's a property rights issue," said Connie Rockco, a commissioner of coastal Harrison County, Miss. Though she said there might be some particularly low-lying areas that could be purchased and kept as green space, she didn't think locals were about to pick up and leave their ruined shore.

In neighboring Hancock County, Tourism Development Bureau Director Beth Carriere doesn't see that happening either.

"It's still America," she said. "You cannot keep people from utilizing their own property on this wide of a span. We're drawn to the water."

Carriere, whose family has lived on the Mississippi coast since the 1700s, predicted that moving casinos onshore would free up the waterfront for shops and marinas. "I envision them doing a lot of waterfront development," she said.

With little success, scientists have been arguing against the coastal buildup for more than a decade.

A 1990 report by the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the federal government map areas vulnerable to coastal erosion and use the National Flood Insurance Program to restrict development, barring new construction in the most quickly eroding areas and moving it back in others. Towns that didn't adopt the erosion standards would not qualify for federal transportation, water or sewer funds. And properties wouldn't be eligible for disaster relief.

The recommendations were never adopted.

"The politics are very, very difficult in the sense that you've got extremely valuable property," said David Owens, a University of North Carolina professor of public law and government who helped prepare the academy report. "Folks who own that ... tend to have a great deal of political influence."

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