Daring the Surge
Experts suspect that severe hurricanes like Katrina are likely to occur more frequently in years to come. In his article from the June 11, 2007, Mobile Press-Register, Steve Myers talks with Mississippi and Alabama coastal residents about dodging the government's flood-plain rules, and why they do it.
Image: In the Danger Zone
Steve Myers

Regulators and scientists say it's the new reality: Severe hurricanes like Katrina, Ivan and the several storms that battered Florida in 2004 are likely to occur more frequently.

James Crane Sr. doesn't see it that way.

Crane's 11-foot-high house on Heron Bayou in coastal Mississippi was wiped off its pilings during Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, his local government raised building elevation requirements on Heron Bayou to 21 feet above sea level, two feet higher than the storm surge there.

Katrina's destruction in 2005—a few decades after Camille—showed that federal maps outlining flood risks in Mississippi were outdated and offered inadequate protection.

A new house on Crane's lot, which is a couple of feet above sea level, would have to sit on pilings nearly 20 feet tall.

"That's not reasonable at all," Crane said. "At 11 feet, any time there was a storm and water came up, there was no problem — until this time. This time was something unusual. ... That's probably never happened before."

Crane, 73, decided to sell the lot rather than deal with building another house. The new owner is complying with stiffer construction requirements, but he's not pleased about it, either.

Katrina's destruction in 2005—a few decades after Camille—showed that federal maps outlining flood risks in Mississippi were outdated and offered inadequate protection. Since then, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has required that state to raise its minimum standards for building elevations by 3 to 8 feet.

Most scientists expect that Alabama's elevation standards will rise similarly when FEMA revises its flood maps for this state, which some worry may not happen for several years.

But in interviews with the Press-Register, many coastal Alabama homeowners doubted they would see such devastation again and described flood regulations as a burden.

Many said they simply follow minimum requirements — if they don't have to buy insurance or don't have to build higher, they won't. Comments by some suggested they were inclined to ignore flood risks and seek ways around stiffer building rules.

It's an unpopular task to raise coastal building elevations. Affordable-housing advocates say the poor and middle class can't afford to build higher, making the coast a domain of the well-to-do.

But scientists and some flood plain managers argue that the alternative — allowing people to rebuild at the same height after a hurricane has wiped their homes away — is just as problematic. They say that leaves people just as vulnerable as before and opens the government to massive payouts if another storm hits.

"You're setting these people up to get hurt again, you see," said Bayou La Batre attorney Doug Martin, who has watched some locals repair their flooded homes without elevating.

After a lull in hurricane strikes on the U.S. coast, activity heated up again in the mid-1980s, and scientists predict years of severe storms.

Meanwhile, the landscape that protected people in the past-barrier islands, dunes and wetlands — has shifted or eroded. Global warming is expected to raise sea levels for years to come, according to scientists.

"The mentality of people is, 'I survived Betsy, so therefore that was the biggest one that could ever happen,'" said Roy Dokka, a Louisiana State University professor who has documented land subsidence along the Louisiana coast. "Now they say, 'I survived through Katrina. I can survive anything.' The problem is, Katrina is on the high side of a moderate storm."

"I think the question one should ask is, given that things have changed, are you really prepared for what can happen?"

The gamble of coastal living

When Dan Lemoine arrived on the north shore of Little Lagoon in Gulf Shores in 1990, he told his wife, "Don't move anything down here that you're not ready to kiss goodbye."

Lemoine said he figured that about eight years would pass before a hurricane damaged his house. It ended up being 14 years before Ivan's surge pounded the place apart.

He has since built a new, higher house, partly paid for with flood insurance money.

"Would I do it again? Heck, yeah. I enjoy living out here tremendously," he said. He gestured to the water — calm on a recent afternoon — in front of his new house. "Look at the view. What do you see?"

He didn't need an answer. "Life is a gamble. You weigh one against the other."

Thousands of people have made the same mental calculation in deciding to live on the coast. Some have decided they're comfortable with longer odds than others.

After Katrina, Jesse and Amy Eldridge decided to move to a house in Gulf Manor on Dog River that was flooded during Katrina.

Constructed decades ago, the house sits about 6 feet above sea level, which is 5 feet lower than the current minimum elevation requirement in Mobile.

About 5 feet of water entered the house in Katrina, then mold spread throughout while it remained untouched for more than a year. The city estimated that it would cost almost as much to fix up the house as it was worth.

Normally, a home sustaining such damage would have to be elevated during repairs, or replaced with a higher house.

But the Eldridges are getting around the elevation requirements. They paid cash for the place, using a family loan, so they didn't have to deal with a bank inspection or comply with lenders' requirements to buy flood insurance. And they are planning on spending less than half of the home's value on rebuilding — any more, and the city would make them elevate in order to get a building permit.

Jesse Eldridge said that flood insurance would cost him about $1,100 a year, so he opted out. "For what we're putting into it and what it cost to buy it, it's not really worth everything it takes to get flood insurance," he said.

He said he's hoping to repair the home for about $60,000.

Some people said they've soured on insurance — flood or otherwise — after disputes over damage or publicity about companies canceling policies near the coast.

Tucker Grau lost his home on Fort Morgan Road to Ivan. Water rose to the ceiling, but he received much less than the $250,000 policy maximum on his flood policy.

He has since moved to another house on the beach, and won't buy flood insurance. "I'm going naked this time," he said.

In an effort to better communicate the true risk of flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken to noting that over time, the odds of a 100-year flood are pretty good.

Such a storm has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Still, a home in the 100-year flood plain has a 26 percent chance of flooding during the course of a typical 30-year mortgage, while a home in the 500-year flood plain has a 6 percent chance, according to FEMA.

Those odds assume that the federal flood maps are correct, which is far from certain in Alabama's case. High-water marks from recent hurricanes suggest that some areas in the official 100-year flood plain have been flooded three or more times since 1969. Judging by that record, some people in the 100-year plain can count on being flooded every 10 to 20 years.

John Eringman, a retired flood plain coordinator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, knows the struggle of persuading people to buy flood insurance and build higher than before.

Though coastal Mississippians have had a hard time dealing with the changes, he said, "In the future, I think they'll be pleased if they get hit by another storm and they say there's hardly any damage — everyone can go home."

Originally published on June 11, 2007 in the Mobile Press-Register. Courtesy of the Press-Register 2007 © All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.