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To Rebuild or Not to Rebuild: Examining Disaster Policy in the Wake of Hurricane Ian

Image via Joe Raedle / Getty Images

When Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa, Florida on September 28, 2022, it brought storm, sea, and devastation. The areas most severely affected by Ian’s wrath were unsurprisingly the areas inherently most vulnerable to landfalling hurricanes: those at low elevations and directly adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. With climate change exacerbating the risk these unprotected communities face from future storms, federal policymakers should consider shifting the government’s strategy from rebuilding to compassionate relocation. 

Bringing Category 4 sustained winds up to 150 miles per hour and more than 12 feet of storm surge, Ian inundated communities along the southwestern Florida Gulf Coast. In Lee County, at least 45 people lost their lives as up to 18 feet of storm surge swept houses from their foundations in the beachfront communities of Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach. 

Quite understandably, most recovery efforts in the aftermath of Ian have focused on rebuilding the coastal communities demolished  by the hurricane. For example, Fort Myers Beach residents have vowed to reconstruct their restaurants, homes, and hotels devastated in the storm surge. Rebuilding the most hard-hit areas will be a massive project—as President Biden put it while surveying the damage in Fort Myers Beach: “You got to start from scratch.” To that end, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated $420 million in assistance to those affected by the hurricane, a figure that includes low-interest disaster loans to homeowners and business owners, temporary housing costs for those left without shelter, and free home inspections.

The immense human and financial costs of Hurricane Ian cannot be minimized, and it is eminently understandable that the first instinct of impacted residents and politicians alike is to rebuild. What complicates these plans is the sheer vulnerability of these communities to future hurricanes of comparable intensity and destruction. Hurricane Ian was the sixth Category 4 or 5 hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast in the past six years. Climate change is predicted to only exacerbate the risks Gulf Coast coastal communities face—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report declared that the predicted rise in sea levels would cause “moderate” coastal flooding to occur more than 10 times as frequently by 2050 than it does currently. 

No matter how many times they are rebuilt stronger, buildings in low-elevation beachfront towns like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island will continue to face ruination from a hurricane’s storm surge—after all, few structures can withstand the force of 12 to 18 feet of water propelled by sustained winds over 100 miles per hour. Although the entire Gulf Coast is exposed, emphasizing relocation over rebuilding would make sense in a more narrow set of communities—like Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach—where low elevation and adjacency to the Gulf of Mexico makes a hurricane’s storm surge exponentially more catastrophic. 

What would policies that emphasized relocation over rebuilding look like? After 2017’s Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage in the city of Bonita Springs, Florida, the federal government sent $5 million dollars with the express purpose of facilitating the buyout of homes especially prone to severe flooding. Homeowners could sell their property to the city at full market value, and their houses would be converted “into natural green space, recreation, or storm water management.” More than 70 homeowners applied for the program, out of around 300 eligible homes. Yet as of 2022, just three houses had been bought by the city. With only $5 million available, the city is unlikely to have the resources to buy out all interested homeowners.

The Bonita Springs buyout program provides an example of the benefits a more extensive federal relocation program could provide. As Bonita Springs City Councilor Greg DeWitt stated “[the program] means that they don’t have to be worried about a flood.” The program effectively acknowledges the negative impact of living in a structure that would need constant rebuilding by providing an alternative option. 

The Bonita Springs program was facilitated through a block grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) that set aside $75 million to purchase property in high-risk areas for flooding. On a federal level, emergency relief could be directed toward towns to enable large-scale implementation of the Bonita Springs home buyout program. This implementation would start with the federal government mapping out the Gulf Coast communities most vulnerable to cataclysmic storm surge from hurricanes and designating them as potential recipients. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) already possesses tools that gauge how much risk a community faces from storm surge. A logical place for the program’s eligibility to begin would be regions forecasted to receive more than nine feet in storm surge from a Category 1 hurricane, a category that mostly includes beachfront property on the Florida Gulf Coast and non-leveed areas outside of New Orleans.

 The program would remain voluntary—no property owner would be obliged to move farther inland if they don’t want to. Additionally, the federal government would ensure that cities and towns are paying full market value for the home or business. A one-size-fits-all approach that compels relocation would not be appropriate because individual residents and families would likely have varying tolerance levels for the pernicious effects of repeated natural disasters. It is easy to imagine a wealthy retiree who is willing to rebuild their beachfront home not wanting to take up the program, while a more transient person with less financial flexibility would. This would allow vulnerable property to be bought out generationally. Additionally, the negative financial consequences of disasters would be concentrated on those who could afford the costs more. In essence, all this program would do is provide an additional option—government-subsidized relocation in addition to the rebuilding-centered disaster relief efforts of the present.

The most significant counter argument to a large-scale relocation policy is the potential cost. But a home buyout program could be paid for with some of the money currently used for rebuilding programs. One year after 2018’s Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida panhandle, the federal government had spent almost $1.9 billion in assistance to just 18 counties, with $121.3 million approved for housing repair costs, home replacement, and rental payments. Directing a portion of that money to buyout programs would certainly be bureaucratically feasible. When it comes to the politics of such a move, policymakers could retain the same level of rebuilding assistance for people under a certain financial threshold, ensuring that the cost of the buyouts is borne by those who can rebuild without help from the federal government. 

It is also important to consider the economic and cultural impacts of relocating entire communities. There is little doubt that relocating businesses and houses would erode and eventually wipe out the economies of the beachside areas affected. A potential way to account for this economic loss is the Dutch model of creating natural parks in areas especially vulnerable to flooding. Charging out-of-state tourists for access to these new public amenities—mainly, the pristine beaches of the Gulf Coast—and transferring that revenue to relocated individuals could alleviate some of the economic impact of this policy.

Clearly, the destruction of homes and businesses during natural disasters is devastating for those affected. The home buyout program in Bonita Springs offers a blueprint for a policy solution that could be implemented at a national level for Gulf Coast communities most vulnerable to storm surge. With climate change guaranteeing that places like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island will face destructive storm surge again and again, an option allowing people to sell their homes instead of having to rebuild from scratch is a smart step toward building a more resilient future.