Coastal Residents Worry About ’Sitting Duck’ Developments

Mon June 07, 2004 - Southeast Edition

NETTLES ISLAND, FL (AP) Helen Wagenseller’s second-story dining room is so close to the water’s edge that she became seasick the first time she peered out the window.

Her home sits among 1,600 others on this tiny island created from the spoils of a dredging project and protected only by a shallow, 4.5-mi. perimeter sea wall. In the 35 years since it was developed, the island has escaped with only glancing blows from hurricanes, a fitting streak for what some see as a charmed spot.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find any place like it,” said Wagenseller’s husband, Bruce. “It’s our little bit of paradise.”

But lesser storms have already pushed the water within 2 in. of the top of the wall and residents who live in this eclectic mix of traditional two-stories and mobile homes know it wouldn’t take much more to send a surge spilling over.

“It’s kind of a sitting duck,” admitted Blaine Ellingson, the neighborhood chiropractor who wrote a book about the island 45 miles north of West Palm Beach. “I wonder how many times you can roll the dice and be missed.”

More than 50 million people now live along the nation’s hurricane-prone coastlines –– nearly double the number since 1970 –– and most are more than willing to trade the storm threat and skyrocketing insurance rates for postcard-perfect vistas.

But with every year that passes without a devastating storm, the odds increase that the luck will someday run out.

This year, noted hurricane forecaster Bill Gray predicted a 71 percent chance of an intense hurricane hitting the U.S. coastline, something that hasn’t happened since Hurricane Andrew smashed into South Florida in 1992 with 165-mph winds –– killing 43 people and causing $31 billion in damage.

“This can’t keep going. Climatology will eventually right itself,” Gray warned. “We’re going to see hurricane damage like you’ve never seen it.”

His 2004 forecast calls for nearly 50 percent more storms and hurricanes than the typical season, with 14 storms, eight of them hurricanes, and three of those powerful.

It also deems the East Coast and the Florida peninsula as most vulnerable, with a 52 percent chance of getting hit. The Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, TX, has a slightly better chance of being spared but still faces a 40 percent probability of seeing a hurricane make landfall.

Despite the lingering threat, the pace of development in vulnerable places continues unabated.

Even in areas covered by the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act (Cobra) –– which discourages development by withholding money for flood insurance, road repair and disaster relief –– the sounds of sawing and hammering echo across the dunes.

About two thirds of the town of North Topsail Beach, NC –– including the town hall –– is in the so-called “cobra” zone. Yet when Hurricane Fran destroyed 350 homes there eight years ago, the federal government approved $6 million to rebuild damaged infrastructure.

Last year, the town approved construction of 94 single-family homes and eight new duplexes, about quadruple the number OK’d two years earlier. About half of those were in “cobra” zones.

“It doesn’t necessarily seem to be slowing down development,” Town Manager Tom Betz said of the federal disincentive. “I think most real estate people will tell you it’s location, location, location ... and oceanfront is a great location.”

Joe Minor, a retired civil engineering professor from Houston, said new homes built to current international code standards should fare well during most big storms. But he said the codes are only as good as their enforcement, and enforcement tends to be better in places that have experienced a major storm –– like Miami with Hurricane Andrew and Charleston, S.C., with Hugo.

It seems only those who have lived through a big hurricane can really understand the disaster it wreaks.

Marjory Wentworth moved to South Carolina’s Sullivans Island in 1989, six weeks before Hurricane Hugo blasted the coast with its 135-mph winds. The water was several feet deep on the first floor and it was a year before the house was repaired and could be lived in again.

Miami-Dade County, hit by Andrew in 1992, has developed the strictest new building code in the nation. Florida also set some tougher statewide hurricane standards in 2000. The comprehensive code is based on national models which outline high-risk areas for storm damage and cover roofing requirements, window protections, inspections and other issues.

But even in places where the memory of devastation is still fresh, there are gaps.

The town of Mount Pleasant, just across the Cooper River Bridge from Charleston, chose not to adopt the portion of the international code that covers wind-borne debris protection. Part of the reason was a provision requiring shatter-resistant glass.

Dale Buchanan’s newfound wisdom came at a premium.

Buchanan’s Belle Fontaine Beach, MS, home was heavily damaged by Hurricane Georges, which tore through the Caribbean, the Florida Keys and the Gulf Coast, in 1998. Since then, he has installed storm shutters and spent $18,000 to pour 2,300 pounds of concrete into a sea wall “to keep it from washing away in the next storm.”

Still, his insurance deductible doubled to $2,000 and his premiums more than tripled to $2,800 a year.

“There’s not much I can do about it if we get hit,” he said.