HURRICANE Felix, the Colin Powell of ocean storms, continued to keep America guessing yesterday as it whirled in place 160 miles off the Atlantic Coast.
Although the storm seems to be weakening, residents here on North Carolina's Outer Banks have been forced to board up windows and tie down boats in anticipation, and more than 200,000 tourists have been evacuated.
But whether Felix wallops the coast, it has already spawned a tempestuous debate about development.
After a decade that has seen earthquakes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, massive floods along the Mississippi River, and a handful of killer hurricanes in the Southeast, people here and across the nation are asking why Americans still build homes in these disaster-prone places.
"It's a serious problem," says Charlie Hartig, spokesman for Dare County, N.C. "I don't think this level of development is going to stop." He says some hurricane experts admit their ability to predict and prevent storm damage "is not improving at the same rate as current development."
The impact of this technology gap is costly. As Americans flock to the water's edge, the price of damage wrought by floods, rains, earthquakes, and hurricanes have jumped considerably - aided by the fact that so much of this new property is expensive.
Although Dare County has made its building codes more rigorous in recent years to discourage home-building in flood-prone areas, the beachfront mansions and time-shares are still popping up within earshot of the crashing waves.
Cheryl Booth, assistant director of emergency management for Dare County, explains that the largest expense to the local economy is the annual emergency fund, taken from the general tax pool, that pays for the thousands of hours of overtime put in by county emloyees during crisis times, and for damage done to county property.
But like most year-round residents here, Ms. Booth welcomes the outsiders. In the summer, the county population swells from 26,000 to 300,000, a mass of sun-soaked humanity whose disposable dollars far outweigh the burdens of traffic jams and gentrification, she says.
Besides, Booth argues, government has a responsibility to take care of its citizenry, wherever they choose to live. "What is your quality of life if you have to pick where you live out of fear of something like a hurricane?" she asks. "That seems like a pretty shallow existence to me."
Yet even for the staunchest advocates of tourism, Felix has had a sobering effect. Late August is usually a lucrative time on the Outer Banks, but today the roads and restaurants are empty. Even if Felix peters out off the coast, the pounding surf it has generated has caused significant beach erosion. At press time yesterday, some forecasters predicted Felix would hover off the coast for as many as 72 hours, continuing the barrage on the sandy stretches that lure tourists.
Like most Outer Banks natives, Tashia Tillett has a mixed view of the oceanfront development. "I can't see why some people build those big homes on the beach when they know they're going to be washed away," she says.
But at the same time, Ms. Tillet acknowledges that she depends on summer visitors for her livelihood: she owns several houses near the beach that she rents each summer. In addition, she says, the tourists add a liveliness to the Outer Banks that vanishes when they do. "Tourists are the lifeblood of this place," she says. "When they leave, there's nothing left to do."
In fact, says Mr. Hartig, the only real opposition to development in Dare County, such as the recent proposal for a new bridge, comes from some of the newest arrivals. "Now that they're here, it seems like they want to raise the drawbridge and keep everybody else away," he says.
Nevertheless, Hartig says the county should make room for those who want to build here, even if they are in harm's way. "I'm a firm believer in freedom," he says. "People have a right to live wherever they choose."
An informal survey of locals reveals that the threat of ocean storms is far weaker than the ties of family and the lure of the beachside lifestyle.
Billy and Carol DuPree sat in their living room watching a baseball game Wednesday night as if nothing unusual was going on. All their belongings were piled in laundry baskets propped up two feet above the floor. The walls of their oceanfront home in Nags Head still bear watermarks from the 1993 storm that left them with two feet of water.
The threat of floods and high winds, they say, is nothing compared with the joy of living 26 feet from the Atlantic. "We're not going anywhere," Mr. Dupree says. "This is home."