When Hurricane Ian, the costliest storm in Florida’s history, made landfall nearly a year ago, a storm surge as high as 15 feet left the town of Fort Myers Beach nearly submerged for several hours.
Today, a drive across the island reveals countless properties recently cleared of debris selling for millions and even tens of millions of dollars. The rapid redevelopment of coastal communities like Fort Myers Beach in the face of sea level rise and more intense storms and hurricanes mirrors a phenomenon sweeping beachfronts around the world: upscaling, the practice of replacing old or more modest homes, condos and hotels with more expensive versions, largely thanks to the high cost of building up to new storm resistant codes, and the potentially uninsured risks associated with doing so.
Despite their intent to make coastal communities safer and more resilient, Florida’s building codes can actually complicate resilience efforts in the long term. Buildings now constructed with concrete and other stiff materials represent a doubling down on Gulf Coast living as climate change makes Atlantic hurricanes more powerful, and more likely to hit the Gulf Coast. And taxpayers, along with the federal, state and local governments, must foot the bill to maintain structures on eroding beaches and flood-prone coasts.
And yet we could be making other plans for these communities. There are policies that would encourage people to move away from the coast, as well as new possibilities for movable and flexible structures.
Before the storm hit, Fort Myers Beach was a colorful, pleasantly ramshackle town along a fairly perfect seven-mile stretch of sand. Its single-story bungalow homes and condo buildings gave middle-class sun seekers entree into beachside living. Its low-slung motels welcomed travelers from both the Midwest and within Florida. Many returned year after year.
A few bigger hotels, like the Lani Kai, a pastel-colored resort once popular with spring breakers, dotted choice beachfront lots. But as the cleanup efforts finally give way to planning and rebuilding, it looks as if the large, high-end hotels and condos will eventually dominate the beachfront. The new version of local color is best embodied by the 254-room Margaritaville Resort, which broke ground in 2021 and has been built, fittingly, on property that was cleared out by Hurricane Charley in 2004. On the beachfront beyond, the construction of multimillion-dollar homes, condos and tourist lodging will undoubtedly soon rev up.
Upscaling is often an answer to overtourism, since higher-end hotels can bring in strong revenue while lowering density: Ten tourists spending a collective $30,000 put less strain on local resources and patience than 60 budget travelers spending the same amount. Resort developers are also encouraged by what they see on the ground, where luxury properties have been outperforming the overall hotel market in terms of growth and market share for years now. For their part, governments welcome the tax revenues generated by lofty room rates.
But upscaling is also a consequence of confronting climate change, especially in the aftermath of a devastating storm like Ian. Stringent building codes and dysfunction in the insurance industry have driven the cost of rebuilding beyond the reach of many current property owners, including small-scale developers. As a result, Fort Myers Beach’s high-end redevelopment has been sped up by years, if not decades, in the wake of Ian.
Fort Myers’s oldest homes and businesses were the least likely to have made it through intact, erected as they were well before today’s storm resistant building codes existed. The Silver Sands Resort is one poignant example. Parts of it was built around 101 years ago, the oldest hotel on the island’s beachfront, comprising 14 cottages that were one of a dwindling number of modest accommodation options. Ian destroyed it entirely. Just after the storm, its owner expressed a desire to rebuild, but a few months later, after receiving a woefully insufficient insurance payout, she sold the land for $7.1 million to the developer of the Margaritaville Resort.
Just down the island’s main road, the Red Coconut R.V. Park had been attracting tourists since the 1920s, evolving into an unofficial community hub. Like the Silver Sands, it was wiped off the map. For now, the land it stood on sits empty, but earlier this month, the nearly 10-acre Red Coconut property was sold for $52 million to Seagate Development Group, which has developed numerous communities of multimillion-dollar homes in Southwest Florida.
Developed in response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and put in place in 2002, building codes require, among other things, that structures located within a mile of shorelines prone to high winds have impact-resistant windows, that those located in flood zones be anchored on pilings or columns that clear the height of anticipated flooding and that have ground-level breakaway walls (or no ground-level walls at all) to let water pass through during floods. In cases of rebuilding after storms, if repair costs amount to at least 50 percent of a property’s value, the owner is required to rebuild in adherence to the new codes. For most homes in Fort Myers Beach, this means that rebuilding what was there before Ian isn’t an option. For a hotel development like Margaritaville, the building codes helped it weather Ian with damage from which it could recover.
Building up to code is costly — far more so than building wood-frame beach bungalows. It also requires a tolerance for risk that often only money can buy — when insurance no longer covers full rebuilding costs, mainly those with deep pockets can build on the water. That means existing property owners like those of the Silver Sands, Red Coconut and countless private homes end up cutting their losses and selling. What will go up are apparently second homes and luxury resorts that can turn a profit in a few years before another hurricane hits. (A new hotel typically pays for itself in five to 15 years, obviating the need to think about 30 years down the line, when sea levels will have risen even further.) For well-funded developers, the risk and expense can be worth it, even if it means betting on a potentially doomed parcel of land.
They’re also banking on the infinite desirability of the beachfront, as are the state authorities responsible for the building codes that allow redevelopment after hurricanes and floods. And when these homes have to be fortified against beach erosion and sea level rise, taxpayers and governments are stuck with the bill.
Instead, the state could cultivate solutions that benefit a wider set of people who want to live near the coast: temporary, movable structures for tourists and residents and other ways to motivate people to move away from the riskiest places, a strategy called managed retreat. The biggest obstacle to managed retreat remains local resistance. From the Florida Keys to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to New York City, homeowners have so far largely resisted efforts to encourage relocation even as the rising tides bear down on their areas.
The drive to upscale residences is in the meantime resulting in an entrenchment rather than a retreat in places that will soon clearly become untenable. It’s less like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and more like constructing a new house as it sinks.
Sarah Stodola is a writer in New York and the author of “The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach.”
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