After Ike, to rebuild or not?
Coastal Texas now faces the classic question asked in the wake of other natural disasters.
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Even before the storm, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson proposed that new coastal construction be set back at 60 times the erosion rate – 60 feet for every foot of erosion, for example.Skip to next paragraph
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"We now have a graphic example of why you should build as far away from the dunes as possible," Mr. Patterson told the Houston Chronicle during a flyover.
Local officials blasted Patterson's proposal, claiming that communities couldn't survive without new construction. The late '90s real estate boom helped fill tax coffers at a time when local industries were declining – especially in old boom towns like Galveston.
So far, the federal government has largely sided with building boosters. In high-erosion corners of the Gulf like Dauphin Island, Ala., the Army Corps of Engineers has moved sand in order to replace home lots that washed out to sea. Generous infrastructure funds guaranteed by federal law allow the government to underwrite disaster recovery, and also tend to support rebuilding on vulnerable lots.
"It's a very positive sign for sensible management if the State of Texas does take a new look at how we rebuild extremely vulnerable shorelines," says Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. "But I'm also skeptical, because the people who are being shut out of rebuilding tend to be wealthy and politically influential. People say, 'Those people must be nuts to build on the West End of Galveston,' but it's actually the taxpayers who are nuts for subsidizing that development."
Alphonso Nickerson, who rode out Ike with his mother behind the seawall, says wealthier residents will certainly rebuild. "If you don't have to worry about money, it's no big thing," he says.
But Carlos Silliman, a laid-back outdoorsman, says city government has abandoned the lessons of the last half-dozen storms. He thinks the city should stop building infrastructure to the unprotected areas and pay more attention to storm-proofing the city's five electrical substations, all of which fizzled out.
"Yes, these kinds of storms become memorialized and they become part of that culture," says Anthony Oliver-Smith at the Institute for Environment and Human Security at United Nations University in Bonn, Germany. But he says, "Memories of [natural disasters] begin to diminish after 30 years, at which point development begins again to put people in harm's way."