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'On borrowed time.' Why coastal Florida keeps rebuilding after storms like Hurricane Ian

Man looks into the distance in a framed house
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Chuck, 72, gives a tour of his Hurricane Ian-damaged home on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Bonita Shores, Fla.

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?

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.

Single white char next to flood waters at the end of a road that was destroyed
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Gulf water flows through a broken section of Pine Island Road on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28, claiming lives and leaving flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.

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.

“Watching a community that learned the hard way and made the right decisions, and then watching them backpedal because their memory became so short, it was just really hard to watch,” said Del Schwalls, a Florida-based floodplain management consultant whose family lives in Mexico Beach. “It’s heartbreaking.”

He worries the same scene will play out in Southwest Florida, despite the calls from politicians and residents for building back better.

“There’s a lot of decisions we made 20 years ago, on Fort Myers Beach that resulted in somebody dying in Ian, that resulted in somebody losing everything in Ian,” he said. “What are the decisions we make today that will save someone’s life 20 years from now?”

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.

“That’s not a great number,” she said.

Woman walking among debris outside a house following Hurricane Ian
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Donna LaMountain, 51, surveys damage on Pine Island Road on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm the afternoon before, leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.

Another factor is FEMA flood maps. Destroyed homes inside the floodplain, the zones where flood insurance is mandatory, will likely have to be built higher, maybe even on the pilings that are a common sight in the Florida Keys, to meet the newest federal elevation minimums.

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.

“It’s a competing priorities and resources problem, but we also have some strong organized opposition,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, whose organization often tangles with development and real estate interests who want to keep home-building costs low.

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.

 Aerial footage shows a partially submerged home
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Aerial footage shows a partially submerged home on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Matlacha, Florida. Hurricane Ian washed away part of a bridge in Matlacha, making the road to Pine Island impassable.

But proponents of better building, like Schwalls, say the housing crisis is used to derail the conversation about smarter building.

“To use that to put the people who are most vulnerable at risk is just horrific. I hear it all the time,” he said. “We need more affordable housing. Don’t put the lowest-income people and put them in a spot where they can’t recover. It’s not right.”

Like in Mexico Beach, Schwalls worries that pressure to move fast and reduce costs for communities that have taken huge economic hits will water down better building standards.

Map shows barrier islands in southwest Florida
Court Cox
Florida's barrier islands are nature’s way of protecting the mainland from the ravages of wind, sea and storm.

It’s already happening in Cape Coral, where the city is actively warning residents of destroyed older homes to slow down the pace of repairs so they don’t have to rebuild to the new, higher standards. Under FEMA rules, if a homeowner spends more than 50% of the value of a property in one year on repairs, then they have to build to the newest standards, which can involve elevating — a pricey prospect that most residents try to avoid, but something experts say is crucial for weathering future storms.

Cape Coral’s city council said it hoped to pass a law that may exempt its residents from that rule, but it couldn’t take up the issue until at least January.

A couple look dejected outside their home
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Chuck, 72, and his wife, Jennifer, 65, stand outside of their Hurricane Ian-damaged home on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Bonita Shores in Southwest Florida.

That higher price tag could be the deciding factor for some residents, who are focused on building places to live now — not surviving sea rise and the next possible storm.

Chuck, a retired engineer from Boston, said that if he’s required to elevate his single-story home in Bonita Springs that was flooded by Ian, he’ll leave. He asked not to be identified by his last name.

“I’m 72. I don’t want to put a whole of sweat equity into this home,” he said. “If they make us come all the way up, then I’m probably going to be out of town. I can’t afford it.”

And even if they can afford to stay and rebuild, he and his wife plan to build back cheaper this time, because they know it won’t be too long before another hurricane blows through or rising seas flood the property.

Hand holding a cell photo with a picture of a kitchen, inside a framed house
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Jennifer, 65, shows a photo of her kitchen before Hurricane Ian destroyed it while giving a tour of her damaged home on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in Bonita Shores.

“We know it’s on borrowed time, so we’re not putting too much into it,” said Jennifer, a 65-year-old retired medical social worker.

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change...” she trailed off, staring at the water lapping at their seawall. “We’ve got water on both sides.”

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.”

A boat on the shore and other debris next to the water after Hurricane Ian struck
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
A man moves through gulf water flowing through a broken section of Pine Island Road on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28.

The mantra “we will rebuild” is more than a slogan soaped on the backs of cars or scrawled on chunks of debris, it’s a financial necessity for residents who lost everything in a storm, said Stephen Strader, an associate professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University.

It’s also the natural cycle of Florida’s influential development industry.

“It’s all a cost-benefit analysis that they’re conducting. As long as the money’s there to be made they’ll come back,” he said. “There’s no de-incentivization to pull out of these areas. Until that happens we’re not seeing any slowing down.”

Heidi Christianson, a 66-year-old retired landlord, said she plans to rebuild the Ian-wrecked Fort Myers home she rents out because those profits fund her and her husband’s retirement travels.

“It’s been good to us, so we’ll rebuild,” she said. “I don’t know when.”

A woman stands by a broken pool screen
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Heidi Christianson, 66, a retired landlord, stands by the pool screen that was damaged by Hurricane Ian inside her home in Bonita Beach, Florida.

Weeks after Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle, local Realtors reported back-to-back phone calls from out-of-state buyers eager to snap up any property for sale. The same thing happened in the Florida Keys in 2017 after Hurricane Irma sent boats, roofs and homes flying in the Florida Keys: “For sale” signs on devastated properties quickly turned into “sold” signs.

A Naples-based real estate advisor recently told the Wall Street Journal one of his clients plans to spend $50 million snapping up storm-damaged properties, and competition is already so fierce that cash buyers are door-knocking ruined homes that aren’t even listed for sale.

What could cause retreat?

The biggest gulf between policy and reality when it comes to coastal communities isn’t how to rebuild, it’s when to leave communities that face rising risk from surge and rising sea levels.

The federal government does buy out some flooded homes, but the programs are usually tiny and not well-funded. The exception may be the Florida Keys, where the island chain’s intense risk motivated its leaders to prioritize home buyouts in the most flood-prone spots.

However, federally funded buyouts in Florida more often look like what happened in Miami-Dade recently. The county took so long to buy out a handful of Hurricane Irma-flooded houses that the state yanked the money back. In the meantime, one of the buyout-marked homes was scooped up by a developer who asked permission to build even more on the flooded lots. The county approved it.

 An aerial view of hurricane damage
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
An aerial view of hurricane damage on the southern tip of St. James City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm on the afternoon of Sept. 28, leaving flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.

Michael and now Ian underline that the public and politicians aren’t going to be leading the call to retreat from the vulnerable coast. Instead, money — meaning skyrocketing costs — will likely be what drives all but the wealthiest residents elsewhere.

Take insurance prices alone. Florida’s home insurance market was already wobbling under fraudulent claims, pricey lawsuits and financial mismanagement by some insurance firms before Ian caused billions of dollars of damage. Floridians pay the highest annual premiums in the country for home insurance, and coastal flood insurance prices are climbing. The federal flood insurance program, which provides nearly all flood policies in Florida, raised rates on most flood-prone properties in Florida earlier this year.

o for some coastal Floridians, the decision to move away will come from consumer concerns, not climate ones.

“Maybe the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the person who says ‘I’m not going to pay twice my mortgage payment for insurance,’ ” Strader said.

Man standing at his fence looking at debris
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Mike Romeo, 53, surveys damage at his St. James City home on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Florida. Romeo has lived on Pine Island for years. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28.

By then, however, it may not be easy to leave, especially if residents are counting on selling their homes to finance the move.

Cornell’s Shi points to the Chesapeake Bay, where a $3,000 increase in flood insurance premiums sent property values tumbling by tens of thousands of dollars.

“Housing markets are slowly beginning to respond and adjust,” she said. Eventually, she said, “You’ll see a switching of property values where the current coastal high value, inland low-value dynamic changes.”

That probably won’t be driven by storms, she said, unless one area is repeatedly pounded by back-to-back storms that make it impossible to financially recover.

Despondent man with his hands over his face
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
Billy Dutko, 67, left, is consoled by Mike Romeo, 53, in their neighborhood of St. Jude Harbors in Pine Island on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in St. James City, Florida. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28, claiming lives, destroying buildings and leaving flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.

“If it’s repeatedly happening again and again, fiscally it’s going to be a drain on state coffers, especially if that spread to multiple municipalities,” Shi said.

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.”

McClatchy data reporters Shirsho Dasgupta and Court Cox contributed to this article.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.