S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Coastal Heritage Magazine

Disaster Resilience: 20 Years After Hugo

Government programs have aided numerous disaster victims toward recovery, but citizens, families, and businesses must become better prepared for future emergencies.

A man looks out from his porch.

Adaption. After Hugo’s storm surge destroyed his house in the McClellanville community, Thomas Williams later built a new home elevated 16 feet above mean sea level. He hopes it will stay dry when the next hurricane strikes. Photo by Wade Spees.

Disaster Resilience: 20 Years After Hugo

One night 20 years ago Thomas Williams and his wife, Evangeline, and their five children clambered into their attic to escape Hurricane Hugo’s rising storm surge.

It was an hour before midnight on September 21, 1989, when Hugo blasted across McClellanville, a rural coastal community. The storm surge swamped the Williams’ one-story home, and gusts ripped off half of the shingled roof, exposing the family to wind-blown rain. “The rain felt like BBs or sand beating you,” Thomas Williams says.

When floodwaters rose into the attic, lapping at their legs, the Williams family climbed onto the remaining section of roof and wrapped themselves with a telephone cord so they wouldn’t blow away. At dawn when the storm winds had finally passed, they descended from the roof, blinking at the destruction. The surge had pushed the house off its foundation and driven it some 30 yards into the woods.

Miraculously there were no deaths in McClellanville that night. But the storm’s effects on the Williams family lasted for years. 

“Oh, man, it was a struggle,” says Mr. Williams, a retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor. “We had some lumps and bumps in the road. Not having a home to go back to—that was so hard. In some ways we’re still struggling.”

Before Hugo, the Williams didn’t purchase flood or wind-and-hail insurance, so they lost everything in the storm. Eventually, the seven family members squeezed into a rented two-bedroom house.


On the Cover. After Hurricane Hugo, Isaac Reeves waited for his nephew to help collect his belongings from what had been his Awendaw home. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

They were fortunate, though, to acquire a Small Business Administration (SBA) low-interest loan, and they constructed a new home on their lot in unincorporated Charleston County. It took a year-and-a-half to build.

The new house was raised on tall pilings, the first occupied floor elevated 10 feet off the ground and 16 feet above mean sea level. The first floor of their previous home was only about six feet above mean sea level.

Now, in 2009, as the twentieth anniversary of Hurricane Hugo approaches, Thomas Williams hopes that his rebuilt house will be able to withstand a future big storm. Elevated structures, scientists say, have a far better chance of surviving battering storm surges and ocean waves than those with foundations nearer ground level.

“The best way to improve a building’s safety from flood hazard is to elevate it,” says Spencer Rogers, coastal construction and erosion specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant Program.


To Code. In the town of McClellanville, an older, pre-Hugo structure (right) stands next to one that complies with National Flood Insurance Program rules, which stipulate that new structures be elevated to reduce flooding damage. Photo by Wade Spees.

The Williams family has become more disaster “resilient”—the word du jour in hazard management and community development. Everybody needs disaster resilience, experts say. Community resilience is also a good idea. Coastal resilience, too. OK, but what does “resilience” mean?

“I think of resilience as the ability to take a punch and get back up,” says Andrew Fahlund, vice-president for conservation at American Rivers, a national nonprofit organization that works with communities to improve floodplain management. Resilience, he adds, is a capacity to adapt and get better prepared for future emergencies. 

Hurricanes will continue striking U.S. coastlines. Nature will follow its volatile course. But, in a resilient community, citizens and governments plan ahead and take practical steps to reduce property damage and prevent loss of life. When the emergency is over, they rebuild stronger structures and institutions.

Some localities and states have instituted reforms that include:

Establishing new or improved building codes and comprehensive plans to manage development in hazardous places. Since the late 1990s, South Carolina lawmakers have passed statewide building codes for single-family homes and commercial structures, and required each locality to create a comprehensive plan. Local comprehensive planning provides opportunities to restrict building in high-risk areas.

  • Educating the public to prepare their homes for high winds and floods, to purchase hazard insurance, and to receive and act on disaster warnings. It’s crucial for property owners in hazardous areas to purchase hazard insurance to spread the high costs of disaster risk and rebuilding.
  • Improving the strength of new and existing public buildings such as schools, shelters, police and fire stations, and emergency facilities.
  • Protecting wetlands, forests, and other natural places along waterways that provide flood protection.
  • Limiting shoreline protections—levees, bulkheads, revetments, and seawalls—that cause localized erosion along coastlines. Also, rebuilding and preserving beach dunes that provide buffers from hurricane surges.
  • Identifying flood-prone areas, improving storm-drainage systems, enacting special building standards and setbacks for flood hazards, steering crucial infrastructure out of hazard areas, and building elevated roads and bridges with storm surge and sea-level rise in mind.
  • Creating post-disaster plans that help localities identify disaster-prone areas and choose appropriate locations to rebuild after a storm.
  • Improving communications among government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations for disaster planning, response, and recovery.
  • Providing incentives for property owners (tax breaks, low-interest loans, and grants) to improve the wind-and-flood resistance of their homes and businesses and reduce hazard-insurance costs.

That’s a long list. Improving disaster resilience can seem overwhelming. Where to begin?

Hurricane Hugo and its aftermath offered some lessons. An important first step is for coastal states and localities to toughen building codes and enforcement so that new and substantially remodeled structures can withstand disasters.

Hugo’s Wake-Up Call

It was Hugo that re-awakened South Carolinians to the hurricane threat. By the late 1980s, many South Carolinians had forgotten or never realized how dangerous and destructive a major tropical cyclone can be. Hugo was the first major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) to strike anywhere on the Atlantic coast in almost 25 years—since Betsy hit Florida and then Louisiana in 1965.


Nature’s Fury. A satellite image (left) of Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4, as it approaches South Carolina. Photo: NOAA.

Most of Hugo’s $7 billion (2007 dollars) in insured losses were caused by high winds ripping off roofing materials. Then heavy rain poured into holes and gaps, soaking drywall and ruining furniture and other valuables.  

“Hugo was an early wake-up call because it was the first multi-billion- dollar hurricane that affected a broad area,” says Tim Reinhold, a former S.C. Sea Grant Consortium researcher at Clemson University and now senior vice-president for research and chief engineer with the Institute for Business and Home Safety, a national insurance group based in Tampa, Florida.

“Hugo caused tremendous devastation and loss all the way inland to Charlotte, North Carolina,” Reinhold says. “People began thinking more about building codes after Hugo hit, though it took another 10 years and additional major hurricanes for some states to establish new statewide codes or improve their existing codes.”


Hugo’s storm surge drove fishing vessels (above) from McClellanville’s Jeremy Creek onto dry land at the Silver Hill Plantation house. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

Just a few years after Hugo, another catastrophic storm struck the Atlantic and then the Gulf Coast.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew, battering South Florida and Louisiana, totally destroyed 63,000 homes and partly damaged another 110,000, leaving 250,000 people homeless and costing $23 billion (2007 dollars) in insured losses.

As with Hugo’s destruction, most of Andrew’s property damage was caused by powerful winds breaking windows and tearing off roofing materials followed by rain pouring inside structures and soaking valuable items.

Engineering surveys in South Florida showed that sloppy construction practices and poor enforcement of existing building codes caused many roofs to fail. Contractors often failed to tightly attach roofing tiles or shingles to plywood roofing sheets. In turn, plywood sheets were not thoroughly connected to rafters. Roof gables often weren’t strapped to walls so the gables were pulled off by high winds. 

Then came a new and dangerous era of hurricane troubles.

 Starting in 1995, a series of multi-billion-dollar hurricanes hit U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coastlines: Opal in 1995; Fran in 1996; Georges in 1998; Floyd in 1999; Jeanne, Ivan, Charley, and Frances in 2004; Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005; and Gustav and Ike in 2008.

Some researchers argue that human-induced climate change increased tropical Atlantic warming and increased hurricane activity. Others say a natural increase in tropical Atlantic warming spawned more tropical cyclones that made landfall along the Gulf and East coasts. Or the increase could be caused by some combination of natural and manmade influences.

Whatever the cause, major catastrophe modelers—scientific risk assessors—are changing the insurance industry’s approach to covering hurricane losses.

California-based Risk Management Solutions (RMS), by far the largest catastrophe modeler, has released estimates of Atlantic hurricane activity rates through the 2012 season. RMS says that average annual insured losses will jump   40 percent in most of the U.S. Southeast, including South Carolina, compared to historical losses since 1900. 


Building Smarter. Since Hurricane Hugo in 1989, South Carolina residential building codes have been toughened, providing more effective protection against hurricane winds. Newer codes require additional straps (top) that connect roofing systems to walls, and bolts (below) that connect walls to foundations. Photo by Jim Houser, Charleston County Building Services.

Facing higher projected payouts, the insurance industry has hiked premiums and deductibles in high-risk areas, and withdrawn coverage in some regions.  Insurers have also pushed for improved construction practices, tougher building codes, and public education about hurricane risks.

Stronger building codes provide prescriptive details and guidance about construction materials and techniques that must be used in high-wind areas. Such codes, for instance, commonly require that a builder install specific bracing for gable ends of a roof and attach gables to walls.

Statewide building codes, with strong local enforcement, usually provide more effective protection against hurricane losses than do a patchwork of local codes with varying degrees of rigor, Reinhold says.

There are some strong statewide codes, including South Carolina’s. “South Carolina is ahead of the field compared to other southeastern states,” says Reinhold. “With tougher standards and better enforcement, it’s come a long way since Hugo.”

Calling for Cavalry

Surrounded by woods and water, McClellanville is about as low-lying a place as you can find in the lowcountry and still be on dry land. The town (pop. 500), comprising one square mile, was founded in the 1830s on the bank of a tidal waterway called Jeremy Creek, beyond which is a vast expanse of salt marsh, and, in the distance, the Atlantic Ocean. Some families have lived there for generations. There are huge live oaks and sleepy, shaded streets and charming, old homes and shrimp boats tied up at wooden docks.

About 2,000 people live near the town in an unincorporated area of Charleston County known as the “McClellanville community,” most of which is also low-lying. After a heavy rain, the distinction between what locals call a “swamp” and “high land” can seem vanishingly small.

When Hurricane Hugo made landfall in September 1989, its eye passed over the city of Charleston. To the right of the eye, in the hurricane’s northeast quadrant, the storm’s most powerful winds raked the region’s two great natural areas—the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest—and a few tiny settlements, including McClellanville and the nearby town of Awendaw.

For several days after Hurricane Hugo, the McClellanville area was cut off from the outside world. The storm knocked over untold numbers of trees in the national forest, blocking off roads to Charleston and Georgetown, the two closest urban centers, 35 miles and 23 miles away, respectively.


Taking Stock. An insurance adjuster assesses Hugo destruction at a Sullivan’s Island home. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

Many homes were destroyed, and electrical power and telephone lines were down. Seawater had contaminated wells, and food quickly spoiled. Some hurricane victims walked two or three miles inland to get food and water from neighbors whose homes were still intact. Volunteers with chainsaws struggled to clear roads.

By law, local governments—municipalities and counties—are the first responders to emergencies. Local elected officials work with county or municipal emergency managers to coordinate disaster response, and if needed, they call state government for help. Effective local leadership is essential before, during, and after a hurricane. But with communication lines down, McClellanville-area residents couldn’t inform county emergency managers in Charleston about their predicament.

Rutledge Leland, the mayor of McClellanville, had evacuated to a motel in the city of Georgetown, realizing, sensibly it turned out, that his home was not a safe place to stay in a major hurricane. Leland had also urged other residents to evacuate.

Despite the area’s low elevation, many residents did not go inland as Hugo approached.

“A lot of people told themselves that a big storm would not be that bad, and they didn’t evacuate,” says Dennis Clark, Charleston County emergency manager at the time of Hugo and now chief of Dorchester County’s emergency operations.

More than a thousand people gathered in an official shelter at Lincoln High School, located just outside town and a half-mile from the shoreline. A land survey had indicated, erroneously, that the school’s first floor is 20 feet above mean sea level. Actually the school is at 10 feet above mean sea level. When Hugo’s storm surge poured five feet of water into the shelter, it terrified evacuees, although fortunately no one died there that night.

Charleston County emergency managers, meanwhile, didn’t realize McClellanville’s struggles for several days after Hugo struck. When Dennis Clark finally visited the area, he found chaos. “There was no one in charge after the storm,” he says. “No leadership. No one in command from the town. There was no organization to speak of. People were floundering.” 


Aftermath. A view of flooded New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Roughly 10 to 20 percent of populations hit by hurricanes do not leave their homes during official mandatory evacuations. More than 1,800 people, many of whom failed to evacuate, died as a result of Katrina. Photo by Mark Moran, NOAA Aviation Weather Center.

 Charleston County has since improved radio-communications technologies so that local elected officials could more easily call for help after a disaster and provide damage assessments, says Cathy Holmes, the current director of the Charleston County Emergency Management Division.

Next time, McClellanville-area officials would evacuate to the town of Awendaw’s new fire station, which is fortified against high wind and elevatedagainst flood, so the leaders could be ready for post-storm assessments. “That’s where I’ll go,” says Leland, who is still McClellanville’s mayor. “The fire station is on high ground and it’s supposed to be safe.”

Whenever a hurricane threatens, the Williams family evacuates far inland.  “I feel safer up here in the air” in the elevated house, says Mr. Williams. “But I won’t be here for any big hurricane to check what will happen to my house.”

Still, memories are short, and many new coastal residents are unfamiliar with hurricanes. A series of post-storm surveys by Jay Baker, a geographer at Florida State University, shows that between 10 and 20 percent of populations in areas hit by hurricanes do not leave their homes during official mandatory evacuations.

“There are people who think they are unsafe but actually live in a safe location,” says Baker. “They evacuate when they don’t need to. Then there are people who think they’re safe but live in an unsafe location. They don’t evacuate but they should.”


Batten Down. In downtown Charleston, a Dockside Condominiums resident covered his windows as a hurricane approached. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

Faring Better Next Time

Drive around the McClellanville area and you’ll see many older homes built low to the ground. Throughout the lowcountry, it’s common for an older home to have an occupied first floor less than 10 feet above sea level, which makes it particularly vulnerable to a storm surge. Hugo’s highest recorded surge in the McClellanville area was 17 feet. In other words, many homes flooded by Hugo could get wet again in the next big storm.

Starting in the early 1970s, most coastal localities in the United States began joining the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Millions of Americans have purchased federally underwritten flood policies.

Within member communities, the flood-insurance program requires that any new or substantially remodeled flood-prone structures must be elevated high enough to escape rising water. FEMA elevation maps are derived from calculations based on past high-water events. The maps specify how high a building must be to survive a 100-year flood.

It was because of this program that many beachfront and marshfront homes built after the mid-1970s were elevated on pilings or foundations.

After a flood has hit a community, building inspectors check structures and determine the extent of damage. If repairs would cost at least 50 percent of a structure’s pre-flood market value, the building has to be elevated to meet the standards of the flood-insurance program. Inspectors enforce this requirement during the permitting process.

Some smaller localities just weren’t staffed to inspect damaged properties after Hugo. At the time, the town of McClellanville nominally belonged to the National Flood Insurance Program, “but we were in the dark ages, I guess you could say,” says Mayor Leland. “We didn’t even have a building official on staff.”

The town, then, had no one to enforce its building code. It also lacked any effective process to ensure that substantially damaged homes were elevated or rebuilt to comply with flood-insurance standards. “We were very liberal” about whether flooded homes were 50 percent or more damaged, says Leland.

FEMA put the town on probation for its noncompliance with flood-insurance rules. “We were almost taken out of the program,” says Leland.

Within a few years after Hugo, the town hired its first building official, passed a flood ordinance, and was taken off FEMA’s probation. In 1997, Paul Fields, the current building official, took over the job. Today, the typical contemporary home in McClellanville is raised 16 feet above sea level, and homes on the waterfront stand 20 to 22 feet above Jeremy Creek.


Cutting Losses. Architect Glenn Keyes and a team of preservationists assessed New Orleans structures six months after Katrina to determine whether they were worth saving. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

After Hugo, larger jurisdictions also couldn’t inspect many damaged structures. “We had about 60 building inspectors coming in to help from other jurisdictions and it still wasn’t enough,” says Carl Simmons, Charleston County building official. “There was just no way to effectively cover 100-square-miles of the county and the amount of damage that we had.” The county did manage a basic damage assessment, though.

Next time a giant storm strikes, the county will deploy new technologies to enhance the permitting process and the 50-percent rule. “We’ll have much better information about impacts soon after a storm than we’ve ever had before,” says Simmons.

“The technologies have been amazingly improved since Hugo,” he adds. “We’ll have before-and-after 3-D photographs taken from airplanes, showing whether any structure has been 50 percent or more damaged. Inspectors will go out with GPS and hand-held computers linked to our office computers, and they’ll have what they need to issue temporary permits.”

Charleston County homes and commercial structures permitted under tougher building codes during the 1990s should fare better in the next big storm, says Simmons. “You won’t see a lot of newer buildings floating across the street the way some did in McClellanville during Hugo.”

Buy Flood Insurance!

Hazard insurance can be complicated and rife with loopholes. But you can protect yourself from catastrophic financial losses by understanding one important principle.

That is, when water rises from below—from a storm surge, a river flood, or a broken levee—your standard homeowners policy, which covers high-wind damage, will not pay out. Only federal flood insurance covers rising water. 

Some Katrina victims knew they lived in flood-hazard zones but had not bought flood-insurance policies. Other victims purchased flood policies but let them lapse.

Still others believed that because they lived outside of official flood-hazard zones that they would never get flooded. In Louisiana and Mississippi, 112,000 owner-occupied homes swamped by hurricanes Katrina and Rita were located outside official flood zones and weren’t covered by flood insurance.

What happened? Why weren’t more households covered?

In Mississippi, coastal flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were inaccurate, says Spencer Rogers of North Carolina Sea Grant, who was a member of a FEMA team that conducted a post-Katrina damage evaluation in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Katrina’s surge—28 feet on the Mississippi coast—was extraordinary, the highest in U.S. history. FEMA flood maps for the Mississippi coast were mistaken by as much as 10 feet in elevation in some locations. That is, areas expected to have eight feet of flooding during a Category 4 hurricane instead experienced 18 feet of floodwater during Katrina, says Rogers.

The storm surge was much higher and poured farther inland than anyone expected along the Mississippi coast.


Katrina’s storm surge, illustrated in this map, swept miles inland through Mississippi’s coastal counties. Map Sources: Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Geology; Mississippi Surge Inundation Limits, Katrina Flood Recovery Mississippi GIS Data, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mayor Brent Warr of Gulfport, Mississippi (pop. 72,000), told a U.S. Senate committee that “even some of our most experienced citizens that work in the insurance industry did not possess flood insurance because they had homes outside of the flood zone, flood insurance was not required, and their area had never been flooded before.”

Thousands of New Orleans residents were also uninsured for floods, but usually for a different reason. In many low-elevation neighborhoods of New Orleans, lenders told mortgagees that levees built and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would provide complete protection from flooding and, therefore, homeowners didn’t need flood insurance.

The average annual flood-insurance premium for a home outside of a predicted floodplain is about $350 a year for a $250,000 policy. Flood insurance is inexpensive compared to standard homeowners insurance.

If property owners are uninsured for rising water, they risk losing everything they own. Home equity is the largest single financial asset for most American households. The primary residence is where typical American families and individuals hold most of their life savings. It’s hard to recover from a storm if you lack the financial resources to repair your home and replace damaged items.

Communities recover slowly—or might never recover—if local citizens are broken financially and can’t afford to rebuild. Years after Katrina, some Gulf Coast neighborhoods have remained ghost towns, with block after block of gutted homes and empty lots. That’s why it’s crucial for coastal property owners who live outside flood zones to purchase flood insurance.

With their customer base and employees gone, many smaller businesses along the Gulf Coast, underinsured and strapped for capital, have failed or have never reopened.

“If they had buildings destroyed, it was extraordinarily difficult for them to get back into operation,” says Tom Lansford, a political scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi. Many small businesses lacked contingency plans for storms or flood insurance, he says.

Over the past 20 years, federal aid programs, including Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, have helped many disaster victims toward recovery. But federal aid rarely provides enough money to replace a destroyed home or business.

Thomas Williams of McClellanville, who rode out Hugo on his roof with his family, didn’t have flood insurance before Hugo struck, and today he still suffers the consequences. “All these years, we’ve been paying back that SBA loan on the house. You can’t miss a payment or they call you and call you. Hugo caused me to get into debt, and I’m still not out of it.”

The reality is that government programs alone cannot solve every problem.

“What is missing now is a sense of personal responsibility to prepare for storms,” says Dennis Clark, the Dorchester County emergency manager. “You can dictate and legislate and warn, but a lot of people don’t see themselves as the ones you’re talking about.”


Resilient, Affordable Housing Sought After Katrina

The Mississippi coast lost tens of thousands of housing units to Hurricane Katrina, and many long-term residents have left the area, perhaps for good.

The Mississippi coast used to be a place where shrimpers, casino workers, and shipyard laborers lived near their workplaces and the water in quiet, stable communities.

“A lot of homes were handed down through generations,” says Steve Sempier, deputy director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. There were numerous older, one-story cottages built only a few feet above sea level. Multi-family rental properties were plentiful and relatively inexpensive.

Now tens of thousands of housing units are gone, swept away by Hurricane Katrina, along with much of the region’s historic, low-key flavor. Coastal Mississippians wonder whether they can afford to live on the coast again. The region will eventually bounce back from Katrina, but many residents have moved away and might not return.

Katrina was a harsh lesson in the importance of building disaster-resilient homes that can survive storm surges and intense winds. Once a home has been extensively flood-damaged, it’s expensive to rebuild or repair it, even if property owners had purchased hazard insurance.

Property owners who were uninsured or underinsured when Katrina struck have faced the most difficulty obtaining financing to rebuild, according to a 2008 study by the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization with offices in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi.


Deconstructed. Miriam Schaefer cycled from downtown New Orleans to see Katrina damage in the Lower Ninth Ward. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

More than 52,000 housing units in the state’s three coastal counties (Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson) received major flood damage or were completely destroyed by the surge, leaving more than 100,000 Mississippians homeless. About 45,000 households ended up in temporary trailers and mobile homes issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

On August 29, 2008, the third anniversary of Katrina, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s Office of Recovery and Renewal reported that housing remains the most critical issue facing the state.

Since Katrina, Gov. Barbour has directed more than $3.9 billion of $5.4 billion—about 71 percent—of federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) disaster funding to housing or housing-related programs.

Through a CDBG-funded program, Mississippi Gulf Coast homeowners can receive assistance of up to $150,000 to rebuild if they meet certain criteria. A homeowner must own a primary residence flooded by Katrina but located outside federally drawn flood boundaries. The homeowner must not have purchased flood insurance before Katrina but did purchase standard homeowners insurance.

By August 2008, more than $1.3 billion in assistance was paid to 17,689 applicants in four Mississippi counties. Those receiving assistance are required to elevate their new or substantially rebuilt homes in accordance with new floodplain requirements, and to purchase flood insurance in perpetuity.

A separate CDBG-funded program is providing rebuilding funds for Mississippi Gulf Coast lower-income homeowners with damaged structures who had not purchased flood insurance or homeowners insurance.

Despite a massive infusion of federal aid, financing for rebuilding remains a major problem, according to the report by the RAND Institute. “Repairs are costly, the construction industry is overburdened, and homeowners and landlords face difficulties obtaining financing for repairs and reconstruction.”


Tempting Fate. Katrina destroyed this casino on the Mississippi coast. Some casinos have been rebuilt, but many workers who once lived near their jobs have moved inland because of the rising cost of rebuilding near the shoreline. Photo by Wade Spees.

Rebuilding, moreover, has been stalled by a slowing economy and by higher insurance premiums that have increased housing costs on the coast, particularly for people with modest incomes.

Since Katrina, Mississippi wind-coverage rates have gone up an average of 69 percent for residences in the three coastal counties and three near-coastal counties, according to Joe Shumaker, director of the Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association, popularly known as the “wind pool.” 

The state-subsidized wind pool provides insurance of last resort for property owners who can’t purchase wind insurance on the private market. The wind pool has designated four distinct geographic areas, with higher premiums being charged in the areas nearer the coast.

 The Mississippi wind pool took in only $12 million in residential premiums during 2005, but Katrina cost a “staggering” $720 million in insured wind damage, says Shumaker.

Most of the wind-pool’s deficit was paid by a $545 million assessment, or fee, required by private insurance carriers in the state. “That didn’t increase insurers’ appetite to provide coverage here,” says Shumaker.

Are homeowners crying foul at the new premiums? “Coastal areas always think the rates are too high,” says Shumaker. “Prior to Katrina they believed they were paying too much.” 

FEMA, meanwhile, has used storm-surge data from Katrina to re-draw flood-hazard maps along the Mississippi coast. The new maps show where structures must be covered by flood insurance. In low-lying neighborhoods near the coast, the new maps mean that some homes must have their first inhabited floors as high as 18-and-a-half feet above mean sea level.

Without flood insurance, it’s virtually impossible to get a mortgage if you live in a floodplain.

“If people are going to qualify for flood insurance now in some areas, they have to rebuild or elevate existing houses very high up,” says Tom Lansford, a political scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi. Contractors are lifting new and substantially repaired homes on tall pilings or new foundations, an expensive proposition.

Many homeowners have relocated farther inland and haven’t yet rebuilt on their land near the coast. Renters have dispersed, too, because of the skyrocketing cost of rent and a declining number of available apartments. Will they ever return?

“There is a disincentive to move to the coast because of the rising cost of insurance,” says Sempier of the Mississippi-

Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. “It’s not whether you can afford a particular house. It’s whether you can afford to insure it.”


When Ecological Resilience Breaks Down

Hurricane Katrina proved once again that South Louisiana is a poster child for un-resilient coastal ecosystems.

For many Americans, Hurricane Katrina starkly illustrated failures in government’s emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. More than 1,800 died from the hurricane, most of them in New Orleans.

But New Orleans’ troubles actually began decades ago when levee building and waterway dredging led to disruptions in South Louisiana’s ecological resilience.

Ecologists say an ecosystem is resilient if it can absorb pressures—an oil spill, hurricane, or climate change—without collapsing into a different state or condition.

A poster child for un-resilient ecosystems is South Louisiana’s disappearing complex of barrier islands, saltwater wetlands, and freshwater marshes that once helped buffer New Orleans from giant storms. South Louisiana’s coastal landscape is drowning and becoming open water. The region is being transformed from one state (wetlands) to another (Gulf of Mexico).            Over many thousands of years, the Mississippi River and its tributaries have flowed down to the Mississippi Delta, where spring floods would burst over the riverbanks, spreading vast amounts of silt across the landscape and creating marshlands that formed South Louisiana. The marshlands need frequent natural nourishments of flood-borne sediments to remain above sea level. The wetlands eventually sink, or subside, as loose sediments settle there and compact.

Since the 1930s, however, South Louisiana’s marshlands have received smaller and smaller volumes of river silt because of navigation dredging in rivers and canals, and building of river dams and levees along 2,000 miles of the river’s watershed. Much of Big Muddy’s flow is diverted or rerouted through navigation corridors held in place by earthen, rock, and concrete levees.

Walled off from the floodplains, the river can no longer provide silt to the delta to keep up with subsidence and relative sea-level rise. Instead, the river’s faster, deeper currents flow beyond the marshes and send the silt off Gulf of Mexico’s continental shelf.

As a result, coastal marshlands are sinking and drowning.

Over the past 50 years, an annual average of 34-square-miles of South Louisiana marshland has become open water. Salt marshes, cypress swamps, and other wetland ecosystems are sinking beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Global sea-level rise, largely due to climate change, has also contributed to the loss of South Louisiana’s wetlands. Nevertheless, about 80 percent of the wetland losses in the region can be attributed to navigation and levee projects that rob sediments from the coast, according to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).


Photo by Wade Spees.

The Katrina tragedy was exacerbated by two crucial systems—ecological and social—breaking down long before the hurricane hit the coast. Katrina exposed the lack of “resilience,” to use the new favorite word of disaster scholars, of these systems.

First, South Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands and forests over the past century had some role in increasing the scale of Katrina’s flood damage in New Orleans. Social scientists, moreover, have pointed out that the city’s most vulnerable populations lived in the most flood-prone neighborhoods. These were people who, by and large, had few social and economic resources to enable them cope with a catastrophe. Many became trapped in their flooded homes or in refuges of last resort. 

The levees have since been rebuilt to survive a 100-year flood, but the city over time will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges because of the further loss of coastal wetlands. South Louisiana’s relative sea level—the combination of localized and global factors—is rising at the rate of about three feet per century.

The loss of river sediments to the South Louisiana coast is continuing, and recent hurricanes have accelerated the process of coastal erosion, says Abby Sallenger, an oceanographer with the USGS Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“By 2050, the city (of New Orleans) will be closer to and more exposed to the Gulf of Mexico,” noted authors of a coastal-restoration proposal, Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana.

Coast 2050 recommends that federal agencies dredge soils and ancient sandbars to build new coastal marshlands and shore up barrier islands that are the first line of defense against approaching hurricanes. The cost cited in the report for all these projects was $14 billion. The proposal had not found traction in Congress because of its high cost.

Along most of the East and Gulf coasts, sea level has risen by about a foot over the past century. And this will accelerate. Polar scientists now say that global-sea level will almost certainly rise by one meter (about three feet) by 2100 because global warming is expanding seawater and melting glaciers and ice sheets.

By 2100, many areas along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard will probably experience wetland losses and storm flooding similar to those now in South Louisiana and New Orleans, says Sallenger.

A combination of land subsidence and global warming could push up sea level more than six feet along the Mississippi Delta and coastal Louisiana over the next hundred years, according to Robert R. Twilley, a wetland ecologist at Louisiana State University.

It would be a major engineering challenge to restore South Louisiana’s wetlands under any circumstances. But, over the next century, the region will face the daunting prospect of restoring its wetland buffers and protecting coastal communities from hurricanes during an era of accelerated sea-level rise.

Reading and Websites

Bernstein, Mark A. and others. “Rebuilding Housing Along the Mississippi Coast: Ideas for Ensuring an Adequate Supply of Affordable Housing.” RAND Corporation, 2006.

Cutter, Susan. “The Geography of Social Vulnerability: Race, Class, and Catastrophe.” Social Science Research Council, June 11, 2006.

Institute for Business and Home Safety

Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force and the Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Authority. “Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana.” 1998.

McCarthy, Kevin F. and Mark Hanson. “What Progress is Mississippi Making in Rebuilding Its Affordable Housing Stock after Katrina?” RAND Corporation, 2008.

National Flood Insurance Program

Risk Management Solutions

S.C. Sea Grant publications to help improve hurricane preparation and mitigation:

Re-Roofing” A brochure highlighting opportunities for reducing wind-damage vulnerability when re-roofing.

Window and Door Protection.” A brochure with information on protecting openings in your home, such as windows and doors, from wind damage.