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Coastal scientist says storm damage is an opportunity to rethink how we rebuild

Destroyed houses and buildings are visible in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Friday.
Tom James for WGCU/NPR
Destroyed houses and buildings are visible in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Friday.

Federal officials have pledged financial support for rebuilding as the Southeast recovers from Hurricane Ian. But the storm's havoc has rekindled the debate over how we rebuild in coastal areas.

Hurricane Ian caused billions of dollars in damages to coastal infrastructure, like roads, bridges and beaches. Some places in Florida, a storm surge of 12 feet or more wiped out most structures and cut off communities.

Coastal geologist Rob Young, who runs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said there's an opportunity in all the devastation.

"It's difficult to move existing undamaged infrastructure away from hazardous areas, but nature's just taken care of that for us. So there should be some places where, you know, we just shouldn't rebuild," Young said.

But Young says we're not very good at that. He points to rebuilding after previous major storms.

"For the most part, we just put stuff right back where it was," Young said.

Young said he's not suggesting we abandon the shoreline. But he said it's a chance to start gradually pulling back from the most exposed locations.

"Out on a dynamic shoreline, just raising buildings doesn't stop the fact that the beaches are eroding, and the beaches are moving," Young said. "So if our only vulnerability adaptation following Ian in is just to lift some buildings up, well, then we still have to hold all of those shorelines in place for forever. And we're still building in the floodplain, we're still gonna have disasters in the future."

Young also notes that much of the cost of rebuilding is paid by taxpayers.

"It's your tax dollars, my tax dollars. So we ought to be able to ask for something in return," he said. "You know, we almost never do. And that little ask should be please don't put stuff back in areas where it's just gonna get knocked down again."

In North Carolina, the storm surge inundated barrier islands from the Outer Banks to Sunset Beach, eroding dunes and washing over beach roads in many places — though nowhere near as bad as Florida. Videos and beach cams showed some beach erosion, including on beaches where sand had recently been replenished.

The beach at Oak Island was among those affected by the storm, just months after the completion of a $29 million beach restoration. Town spokesman Mike Emory said the beach was damaged, though not as badly as some news reports suggested.

"While there is significant damage to the dune structure and several places of inundation, by and large, the dune system seemed to serve its intended purpose. The town is currently working to further assess what impacts/delays this will have on long-term beach management plans," Emory said in an email Monday.

The town conducted a before and after an aerial survey of the beach, which is available on the town website.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.