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Ian shows the risks and costs of living on barrier islands

SANIBEL ISLAND, Florida. (AP) — When Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s Gulf Coast, leveling the lower level of David Muench’s home on the barrier island of Sanibel along with several cars, a Harley-Davidson and a boat.

His parents’ home was among those destroyed in the storm that killed at least two people there, and the lone bridge to the crescent-shaped island collapsed, cutting off car access to the mainland for its 6,300 residents.

Hurricane Ian underscores the vulnerability of the nation’s barrier islands and the rising costs for people living on the thin strips of land that parallel the coast. like hurricanes become more destructiveexperts question whether these exposed communities can continue to rebuild in the face of climate change.

“This is an event on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, where you have to rebuild everything, including infrastructure,” said Jesse M. Keenan, a professor of real estate at the Tulane University School of Architecture. “We can’t rebuild everything to what it was, we can’t afford that.”

Ian slammed into southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday with one of the highest wind speeds in U.S. history, almost in the same spot where Category 4 Hurricane Charley caused damage. important in 2004.

The most recent storm has started a new cycle of damage and repairs on Sanibel that has played out on many other barrier islands, from the Jersey Shore other Outer Banks of North Carolina to a strip of land along the louisiana coast.

The barrier islands were never an ideal place for development, experts say. They typical shape as waves deposit sediment on the continent. And they move based on weather patterns and other ocean forces. Some even disappear.

Building on islands and keeping them in place with beach replenishment programs makes them more vulnerable to destruction because they can no longer move, experts say.

“They move according to the whims of storms,” ​​said Anna Linhoss, a professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University. “And if you build on them, you’re just waiting for a storm to blow them away.”

After devastating parts of Florida, Ian made landfall again in South Carolina, where Pawleys Island was one of the hardest hit places. Winds and rain on Friday broke the barrier island’s main pier, one of several in the state that collapsed and was swept away.

On Saturday, homeowners in the beach community about 73 miles (120 kilometers) off the coast of Charleston had trouble assessing storm damage. The causeways connecting the island to the mainland were covered in palm fronds, pine needles and even a kayak recovered from a nearby shoreline. The intercoastal waterway was littered with the remains of several houseboats wrecked and brought down by the storm.

Like Pawleys Island, many barrier island communities anchor long-established tourism economies, which are often the source of crucial tax dollars. At the same time, the cost of rebuilding them is often high because they house many expensive properties, such as vacation homes.

“When a disaster like this happens, we will pour tens of billions of public dollars into these communities to help them rebuild,” said Robert S. Young, program director for the Developed Coastal Study, which is a joint venture between Duke University and Western Carolina University.

“And we will ask very little for that money in exchange for stepping back in places that are incredibly exposed to danger and making sure that we never have this kind of disaster again,” Young said.

But any major changes to standard disaster response will be complicated, said Dawn Shirreffs, Florida director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Challenges could include decisions about who participates in programs that elevate flood-prone homes or programs that buy those homes and tear them down. Planting mangroves to prevent erosion could end up blocking someone’s view.

Many homeowners bought their properties before people were fully aware of climate change and the risks of sea level rise, Shirreffs said.

But Keenan, the Tulane professor, said Sanibel will certainly change with Hurricane Ian based on the research he has done. There will be fewer government resources to help people rebuild. Those with less means and who are underinsured are likely to move. People with financial means will stay.

“Sanibel will just be an enclave for the ultra-rich,” Keenan said.

But Muench, a Sanibel resident, said home and business owners are likely to rebuild their properties.

His family owned and operated a campground on the island for three generations. The island, she said, is “a paradise: we live in the most beautiful place on Earth.”

“We will continue to exist on Sanibel,” Muench, 52, said from Fort Myers on Friday after evacuating Sanibel. “Give us five years, and you might not even notice if you didn’t know.”

___

Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Meg Kinnard in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, contributed to this story.

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