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By CORNELIA DEAN Published: October 4, 2005
PENSACOLA, Fla. - As the Gulf Coast reels from two catastrophic storms in a month, and the Carolinas and Florida deal with damage and debris from hurricanes this year and last, even some supporters of coastal development are starting to ask a previously unthinkable question: is it time to consider retreat from the coast?
Scientists are trying to determine the most vulnerable coastal communities. Many point to Dauphin Island, Ala., which was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina.
Yes, said Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Company, a lobbying firm that represents counties and local governments, often in seeking support for coastal infrastructure, like roads, sewers and beach replenishment. "I think we need to be asking that and discussing that, and the federal government needs to provide leadership," Mr. Marlowe said.
He added, "I have never been an advocate for the federal government telling people that they have to move out, but it's important to have a discussion at all levels of government about what can be done to make sure more people do not put themselves in harm's way. It will not be an easy dialogue."
The idea that much of the coast is dangerous and getting more so is not new. Coastal scientists have been saying for years that global warming will threaten coastal areas with higher seas and more powerful storms, and that a hurricane lull that began in the mid-1960's will eventually give way to the far more dangerous pattern of storms that prevailed in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. Since then, though, development has transformed the nation's shoreline, especially on the east and gulf coasts.
By last year, when four hurricanes crossed the state of Florida in a matter of weeks, it was clear the lull had ended. This year, Hurricanes Katrina, Ophelia and Rita drove the hazard lesson home.
A. R. Schwartz, a Democrat who for decades represented Galveston and much of the Texas coast in the State Legislature, said he now regretted some of the legislation he had pushed that subsidized development on the coast, particularly a measure that provides tax relief to insurance companies faced with wind damage claims.
Mr. Schwartz, whose constituents knew him as Babe, said that measure was "a terrible mistake - in my mind, as opposed to my heart, because the people need the insurance - because it has been an invitation for people to build homes on barrier islands and on peninsulas that are exposed to storms, at public expense."
"We are facing a crisis now because of that law I passed," said Mr. Schwartz, who now lives in Austin where he works as a lobbyist and lawyer.
Daniel P. Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, said that as coastal areas, and islands, recover "there has to be a discussion of what responsibility we have not to encourage people to rebuild their houses in the same way."
Even the fate of New Orleans should be open to discussion, Dr. Schrag said. "Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild a city that puts it in harm's way once again and relying on technology such as higher dikes and levees seems to me a very dangerous strategy," the more so in an era of global warming.
Erosion already threatens 70 percent of the nation's coastline, and is especially severe on the east and gulf coasts. In a report to Congress in 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that more than a quarter of the houses within 500 feet of the coast might be lost to the sea by 2060. The report said these losses would put an intolerable burden on the federal government, which insures many of the structures through its flood insurance program.
"We are getting these lifetime storms every couple of years," said Riley G. Hoggard, a resource management specialist at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the road to Fort Pickens, on Santa Rosa Island here, has been washed out and rebuilt three times in the last year. "Maybe we need to get into a program of orderly retreat."
In recent decades, people have been doing just the opposite. According to the Census Bureau, 87 million people, nearly a third of the nation's population, live on or near the Atlantic or gulf coasts.