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Sand Berm Debate Ravaging Dauphin Island Beaches

Wed June 21, 2006 - Southeast Edition

DAUPHIN ISLAND, AL (AP) Pounded by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and then Katrina last year, Dauphin Island hardly resembles the paradise days of its past.

Approximately 300 beach homes were destroyed by the two storms, and as many as 50 lots are now in the Gulf of Mexico, which constantly reshapes this narrow spit of sand. Wooden stilts that once held up $1-million vacation homes peek through the frothy surf.

For some property owners, the answer is a huge, 4-mi. long sand pile the government will build to hold back the sea. The price: at least $4 million, and very possibly more.

“Everybody is waiting on the berm,” said Jan Blackmon of Richmond, TX, whose vacation home was swept away by Katrina.

For others, such a project is a foolish waste of money, most of it from taxpayers, in a futile attempt to resist the wrath of nature. Even more, Dauphin Island is for them a symbol of the excessive financial aid that benefits mostly privileged folks whose vulnerable coastal property has been hit repeatedly by storms.

The berm — which is to replace one built after Hurricane Georges in 1998 and flattened by Tropical Storm Isidore — is a big topic of conversation among both absentee owners and the 1,500 full-time residents of Dauphin Island, which was cut in half by Katrina.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay approximately $3 million to build the 9-ft.-high, 50-ft.-wide berm on the island’s southern shore, which was wiped flat by the hurricane, and the Katrina relief fund promoted by former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush will kick in another $600,000.

The city and private donors from the island have come up with another $600,000 for the project, which includes reconstructing approximately 3.5 mi. of beach. Work is set to begin late this year.

But that’s only part of the government money that has poured into Dauphin Island to help heal the scars left by Katrina and Ivan.

FEMA said $44.1 million has been paid to settle 881 flood insurance claims on Dauphin Island since Katrina, and another $16.2 million was paid on 777 claims after Ivan. Separately, FEMA said the island got $9.4 million to repair roads, sewers and other public works after the two storms. All this for 1,500 year-round residents and hundreds more with rental or vacation homes on the island.

Opponents said such spending won’t outsmart Mother Nature. Steve Jones, a coastal geologist of the Geological Survey of Alabama, wouldn’t build a home there.

While the eastern end of the island is stable because of dunes, trees and other natural protections, the slender western end is little more than a big sand bar cut into plots for residential development.

“It’s almost like a dog wagging its tail it moves so much,” said Jones. Approximately all the homes that were destroyed or severely damaged were on that active, constantly moving western end.

The island’s hostile environment and remoteness meant it wasn’t developed until 1953, and it has helped prevent it from becoming a major tourist destination like Panama City, FL, or Gulf Shores, located on the eastern side of Mobile Bay.

Life has always moved at a crawl on Dauphin Island, and both residents and visitors like it that way.

There aren’t any go-cart tracks or dance clubs, and hermit crabs outnumber people on the beach. The barrier island is a quaint reminder of the days before condominium towers and planned communities took over much of the Gulf Coast.

Still, town leaders acknowledge that Dauphin Island wouldn’t be much of anything without a combination of government programs: coastal protections, flood insurance and mortgage deductions for second homes.

“I feel that if the federal government pulled out of here or anywhere all this would stop,” said Mike Tafra, who owns the Gulf Breeze Motel on Dauphin Island and serves on the town council. “It’s easier to do if it’s not all your money.”

That’s the problem Oliver A. Houck has with construction in high-risk zones all over the country.

Houck, a Tulane University law professor who specializes in the relationship between laws and the environment, said rules and regulations have failed to stop continual rebuilding in hurricane-prone areas, which he called “a huge, losing sum game.”

The only real answer to stopping the rebuilding cycle is to cut off the flow of federal money that props up the construction, he said.

“You can’t prohibit it, so you just stop funding it,” said Houck.

The government is offering to purchase Dauphin Island property that has been repeatedly hit by hurricanes, but few people have taken the buyout. The formula for calculating payments is complicated, but city officials said the owner of a $1-million home could receive approximately $250,000 under the plan.

Residents of Dauphin Island’s vulnerable western end said talk about money and government subsidies miss the point of why people come to the resort in the first place. For some, the lure of the sea and orange sunsets is just too strong to deny.

John and Gail Leacy have had a place on Dauphin Island for more than two decades, a family retreat that overlooks the calm, protected waters between the island and the mainland.

Sure, Leacy said, federal flood insurance helps when it comes time to repair their home, which was badly damaged by Katrina. But they also buy private wind insurance, and Leacy has spent $6,000 of his own moving sand that was redistributed by the hurricane.

“People think they’re just down here handing out money, and they’re not,” said Leacy, a retired builder from Mobile. “The rules are pretty strict.”

Critics said rebuilding Dauphin Island is pointless no matter who pays. But Jeff Collier doesn’t have a choice; as mayor, the future of his city depends on reconstruction. And he is counting on federal tax dollars for help.

Dauphin Island lost much of its revenue base when Ivan and Katrina wiped out rental homes, drying up lodging taxes. When the visitors stopped coming, the island also lost much of the sales tax base generated by its handful of small stores and restaurants.

The same thing happened after Hurricane Georges wiped out dozens of homes in 1998, but the government funded a protective berm that was built in 2000. Tropical Storm Isidore flattened the berm in 2002, and it hadn’t been rebuilt before Ivan struck two years later.

Vital as its construction is to the future of his island, Collier knows the next berm won’t be anything but a stopgap. “No one is under the impression this is a permanent fix,” said Collier.

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