Home and Real Estate News

Idalia Destroyed These Gulf Towns

Residents of the small, rural areas of the state’s “Nature Coast” fear the high costs of rebuilding will price them out and they’ll lose their “old Florida” way of life.

HORSESHOE BEACH, Fla. – The Gulf of Mexico obliterated some of the old wooden clapboard homes and pushed others around, some left cracked and broken in the middle of the road.

Fishing guide Hope Reinke’s home, similarly rustic but elevated on stilts, survived more or less intact, a decorative string of crab buoys still dangling from the wooden stairs. So did newer, and far more expensive, homes built to modern standards designed to protect them from just the sort of destructive storm surge that Hurricane Idalia brought to this sleepy fishing village.

Reinke lost some stuff built under the home, including a game room she kept for nieces and nephews. But she and many other residents in the other small, rural enclaves that dot what’s known as Florida’s Nature Coast, worry about losing the “Old Florida” character that once defined their communities and drew many of them in the first place.

These were places with rustic, even ramshackle, waterfront homes occupied by working people, not millionaires on vacation. There is worry – just like in Southwest Florida after Ian last year and the Panhandle after Michael in 2018 – that the high costs of rebuilding will price them out and bring a whole shiny new kind of development.

Recent history shows their worries aren’t unfounded. Mexico Beach, the scene of Hurricane Michael’s Category 5 crime in 2018, is awash with more vacation homes than ever, a process that’s unfolding in Sanibel Island today after it got rocked by Hurricane Ian last year.

Destruction tends to draw speculators looking to make deals with storm victims forced to move on. And the newer homes that follow, almost unfailingly, are elevated and typically constructed with more steel and concrete and impact windows – often along with other amenities that can maximize price and profit and lure new types of buyers.

Reinke, a charter boat captain, said she was determined to see her community build back better, but she worries building regulations that require more hurricane-resilient structures could threaten the local charm.

“We’re scared FEMA is going to come here and do code enforcement,” said Reinke, whose home is 12 feet off the ground. “We just don’t want change in our little Horseshoe.”

The importance of elevation

But what became increasingly clear as rescue teams surveyed Idalia’s damage up and down the coast –a lesson hammered home after each and every hurricane strikes Florida’s coast – is that change, at least in terms of construction, is needed to preserve coastal communities that face increasing threats from rising seas and hurricane storm surge.

Her own home likely wouldn’t have even been elevated without the newer building codes put in place after the last storm tested this corner of the state, the 1993 “Storm of the Century. “There was no advance warning for this storm, and it didn’t have high winds, but it brought up to 12 feet of surge to the coast.

Forty-five people died in that storm, and more drowned than from Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew combined, said Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator under the Obama administration.

“The fact that any of those homes are still standing is the result of codes,” he said. “Every one of them elevated houses, that ain’t old Florida.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also acknowledged the wisdom of elevation in a Thursday afternoon press conference, where he urged survivors to apply for federal money to help rebuild and elevate their homes.

“You look at Horseshoe Beach, most of these homes are very outdated,” DeSantis said. “And so yeah, there was a lot of damage, but there were also homes that weathered it because of how they were built. So they got massive storm surge, but it all went underneath the living area and so they’re going to end up, their homes are going to be fine.”

Fighting the codes

But despite the evidence showing how important elevation can be, it’s common for coastal cities in the wake of a storm to buck new codes, specifically because of concerns like Reinke’s.

Although the building codes in play are enforced by the local government, they originate with FEMA’s flood insurance program. To stay a part of it, and therefore have access to cheap flood insurance and federal relief money after a storm, communities agree to build to a certain standard.

One of those standards includes rebuilding destroyed homes better than they were before. After a hurricane, if repair costs meet or exceed 50% of a property’s market value, it’s considered “substantially damaged” and must be rebuilt to the newest codes, which usually means elevating.

After Hurricane Michael hit Mexico Beach, the city introduced new building codes that called for homes to be built even higher than state codes require. Then, two years later, the city undid its groundbreaking work after significant pushback from residents. Today, some homes are only built six inches higher than they were before the hurricane soaked them with more than six feet of storm surge.

In Southwest Florida, frustrated homeowners who can’t – or don’t want to – pay to fully update their properties complained to local politicians, who asked federal officials to introduce “wiggle room” in the process and spare some homes from elevation. In some cities, they walked back rules originally put in place to encourage people to elevate their homes.

Disasters like Idalia highlight the trouble with balancing the desires of individuals in a community versus the “greater good,” said Stephen Strader, an associate professor at Villanova University in the Department of Geography and Environment.

He compared building codes to safety regulations for professional race car drivers, who might be willing to skip some precautions if it will make their car faster. Regulations have to install rules to protect people from themselves. But that doesn’t always go over well when it comes to people and their homes.

“If you stand up for people and tell them you’re doing it for their own good, people don’t like that,” Strader said.

Without those regulations in place, it’s cheaper and easier for communities to just keep rebuilding in harm’s way and waiting for federal bailouts to fix things when they go wrong.

“When we build back in the same place, in the same way, we’re setting ourselves up for the same impacts years later,” he said.

Codes vs developers

Fugate, who led Florida’s division of emergency management under Gov. Jeb Bush, said he’s seen plenty of communities change after a hurricane blows through.

“In these little small hammocks up and down the coast, will it change the characteristics? Yeah, probably. Is it FEMA’s fault?” he asked. “No. FEMA is just convenient to blame everything on.”

The real problem, he said, is developers. After a storm, it’s not uncommon to have out of town, or even out of state, buyers snap up storm-destroyed properties at low prices and then rebuild a vacation home or rental.

After Hurricane Michael hit Port St. Joe in 2018, several Realtors told the Herald they were getting calls from investors two days after the storm. “Investors are going to eat this area up,” one said.

“It’s what’s happened in Mexico Beach. It’s what’s happening in Sanibel. To a certain degree, that will happen there too,” Fugate said.

The only possible protection for the Big Bend area, he said, is how far it is from any big city or airport.

That’s slim comfort to residents in hamlets like Horseshoe Beach, who have only just begun the long road to recovery.

Sitting in the shade next to his heavily damaged single-wide trailer, Art Herb talked about what it was like to rebuild Kendall after Hurricane Andrew. Herb is a mason who laid bricks following the Big One in Miami, and he thinks he might need to do the same here.

He said in the three years he’s been there, real estate investors haven’t come knocking to buy his small lot. As he looked around at the wreckage, he wondered if that’s on the horizon.

“This place here, he said, “it’s forever changed.”

When you are ready to buy or sell any real estate, please call us at 352-686-0000.

© 2023 Florida Realtors®

Source: https://www.floridarealtors.org/news-media/news-articles/2023/09/idalia-destroyed-these-gulf-towns

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply