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Waves of Relief

A recent photo of erosion on Dauphin Island taken by researchers at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Photo supplied by Dr. George Crozier

About 30 miles south of Mobile sits a tiny sliver of land that has become just as significant to the debate over American disaster policy and the National Flood Insurance Program as any other storm-battered metropolis in the continental United States.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, despite boasting an incredible labyrinth of natural and manmade sand dunes, the 14-mile drumstick-shaped mass known as Dauphin Island floods repeatedly, even when there’s not a single hurricane in sight.

The barrier island’s naturally occurring phenomenon of beach erosion, in which sand is stirred up and shifted around, also presents the occasional possibility of disaster, particularly in areas of property lines, buildings and infrastructure. So, whether it’s rainstorms, hurricanes or shifting sands, local residents are forced to repair and rebuild their homes and businesses over and over again — often at the expense of taxpayers.

In 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program was established to assist homeowners in flood-prone areas like Dauphin Island. But with more than five million homes now under its belt and surges in coastal development, the program is buckling under the weight of a $25 billion debt. This has left Congress with no option but to restructure the program as a means of helping people who live in high-risk sectors.

Hurricanes aren’t just catastrophic — they’re costly. These monstrous tropical cyclones have wreaked havoc across the U.S. in recent years to the tune of more than $500 billion. And, for whatever reason, many U.S. homeowners seem determined to continue to build in harm’s way. Dauphin Island is no different in this regard.

“Last year alone there were about 80 new builds on the island,” says La Donna Douglas, owner and lead agent at Coastal Professional Insurance in Mobile. “More people are coming here, purchasing property [on the island] and putting it into rental programs, which is boosting the economy.” And she works with them, advocating purchase of flood insurance.

“You really want to buy it before the flood maps change and you end up in a higher zone and a higher rating and a higher premium. Most people know the risk is real. And yet, there are still some people who choose not to buy it.

“The people who self-insure are betting against Mother Nature that they’re not going to sustain a total loss. If they do have a total loss, nobody pays them anything. They’re just left without a house and terrible luck.”

Dauphin Island mayor and longtime resident Jeff Collier says that although his office strives to keep people aware of potential changes, residents are also encouraged to remain updated on the latest developments with policies.

“We do try to watch out for changes in the flood insurance, but we should all be mindful and practice good responsibility,” Collier says.

Policy ratings are based on three factors: the age of the dwelling, the elevation of the home or building and the type of flood zone in which it is located. These are all unique aspects of the risk assessment procedure, particularly in a situation like that of Tricia Kerr, president of the Dauphin Island Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Sand Box Gift Shop.

“My business is a bit of an unusual case,” she says, grandfathered in though it’s flat on the ground. “This structure has been here since 1950 and it’s the original structure. The additions that we made were not conducive to the flood laws we have now or even the flood laws from 20 years ago. My mom and dad started the Sand Box in 1974, and now we rent the complex out to three other businesses. We’ve had issues with flooding and hurricanes in the past, with Ivan and Katrina, but to be honest, with the new hurricane boards and strips, we don’t have the problem of water surging anymore. Now, when we built the other portion of the complex, they had to go up to a slightly higher elevation, but it was just a little step.”

Currently, there are three flood zones on Dauphin Island: AE (low-risk), VE (high-risk) and X (non-hazard zone, low-risk). The AE Zone specifically refers to an area inundated by a one percent annual chance of flooding, for which base flood elevation (BFE) has been determined. The VE Zone is an area inundated by a one percent annual chance of flooding where velocity hazards like waves can occur. Zone X typically refers to an area that has been determined to be outside of the 500-year floodplain and outside of the one percent chance for annual flooding.

Most of Dauphin Island’s coastal community is located in Zone X as it is a non-hazard zone and flood insurance is optional. However, any residents living in AE or VE zones have to have flood insurance to acquire a loan on the property and to protect personal assets. Island resident Charles Moses, whose east end home was built in 2016, feels his policy and requirements are about average for his location.

“In an AE Zone, you have to be at least eight feet to the bottom of your first living floor,” he says. “That’s FEMA’s national requirement. Dauphin Island requires an additional two feet. My house is about 18 feet top to bottom. Interestingly, the house next door to me is on the ground and it’s only flooded twice in the last couple major hurricanes. If they were to be totally wiped out though, they would have to rebuild to the new and current elevation standards. When you finance a house like I did, you’re required to purchase flood and homeowners insurance. My flood insurance is $690 annually through Assurant, which is about right in terms of cost from what I’ve discussed with everyone else around here. It’s a pretty average policy and covers all the basics. You couldn’t pay me to live on the west end of the island though.”

Assuming that President Donald Trump doesn’t make any drastic changes in regard to the NFIP, most policies like Moses’ should be fine. But, as many coastal residents will testify, flood insurance is never predictable. Thankfully, Gold Fortified home standards were introduced as a requirement for the Dauphin Island community in 2018 and now almost every structure is built to better specifications in regard to wind resistance and elevation.

“I have a certified Gold standard on my house,” says Moses. “But that’s mostly wind and doesn’t have anything to do with flood. You have to buy the flood separate from regular insurance. Gold Fortified means it’s effective [and protected] against hurricane winds up to 200 mph. I hired an architect to come out and oversee that. All the beams had to be stainless steel, the nail pattern and tins had to be so many nails and a certain pattern and he checked all that. When it was done, it cost me a little bit of money, but he said ‘You’ll be the one standing on your front porch waving at the news helicopters after a major hurricane. This house isn’t going anywhere.’ My house is also registered with FEMA, and I have an official certificate now, so I get a break on my regular homeowners insurance. If you don’t have that Gold standard, your insurance will be crazy.”

For someone like Moses, it’s this level of security that provides a blanket of relief so that he can enjoy living in what he and many other locals fondly refer to as “The Mayberry By The Sea.”

“As a regular resident on the east end, I chose to live here because, although I’m in a flood zone, I like the small town feel of this place. You’re sort of living in a resort atmosphere. It’s also very family-oriented. People are out with their kids all the time, riding their bikes, and there’s virtually no crime. Everybody knows everybody in the community and there’s a lot to do on the island. They have movies on the west end on Friday nights, and there’s the art gallery on the last Friday of every month. Sometimes there are live bands, and of course there’s the beach and boating. I like the water, and fishing and being around the water. And in the wintertime, it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop down here.”

Joshua Givens is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Mobile.

Eat the Invaders: A Restaurateur’s Take on Restoring Nature’s Balance

Chef Brody Olive / Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

About 25 large mullet gather tightly together and swim very slowly in unison through the shallow waters of Cotton Bayou. The dock — owned by the Perdido Beach Resort — extends out some 250 feet over grass beds, where minnows, crabs and stingrays alternately feed and duck for cover. There are not a lot of grass beds left along the highly developed inland coastline, so this small patch is a respite for inshore species.

Out in the open Gulf waters, however, local fish are having a hard time protecting themselves from one predator in particular. A beautiful striped fish that no other aquatic animal can touch swims in alarming numbers around reefs and rigs. It’s an invasive species that is reeking havoc on the natural balance: the lionfish.

First spotted in Gulf waters in 1985, this native of the Indo-Pacific was likely an aquarium pet that was released somewhere in Florida. It reproduces rapidly, and with no natural predators in this new environment, the lionfish has survived, thrived and multiplied. With a steady diet of just about anything, the zebrafish, as it is also known, is toppling a delicate ecosystem. It can now be found swimming anywhere from Delaware to Brazil.

I walked the dock in the late spring sunshine, chatting with chef Brody Olive about his introduction to lionfish. The executive chef at the Perdido Beach Resort is making it his mission to curb the invasion, one tasty appetizer at a time — a goal that is worthy but certainly not easy. His endeavor began in 2014 when Olive and local chef Chris Sherrill were cooking side-by-side at the Seafood, Science and Celebrity event on Dauphin Island, a Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner featuring numerous Southern culinary icons. They struck up a conversation with some divers who were talking about spearfishing for lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico. Olive and Sherrill were intrigued and alarmed but determined. As if the lionfish had thrown down a gauntlet that the chefs simply must pick up, they founded a small nonprofit called The Nuisance Group to educate consumers about invasive species and to promote their inclusion on local menus. Fixing an environmental issue through delicious cuisine seemed like a win/win.

Beachgoers, however, tend to look for snapper, grouper and other large, recognizable names on menus; diners feel confident ordering them. But Olive wants to push diners at Voyager’s, the fine dining restaurant at the Perdido Beach Resort, to broaden their palate. The first step is educating patrons about underutilized fish, such as lionfish, and the second is helping them overcome their fears. “It’s a venomous fish,” he tells me, “but not a poisonous one. The meat is healthy and delicious, a delicate fillet with a buttery quality.” Once people try it, Olive hopes they will begin to recognize it on other menus or even ask for it by name.

Identifying the problem and creating a demand sounds like an easy way to eliminate this invasive species. But unless you plan to dive for them yourself, finding lionfish meat can be a challenge. They are not commercially fished in large numbers, and spearfishing removes them at a much slower pace than nets or other fishing methods. And a labor-intensive product equals high prices.

“I’m not selling lionfish to make a profit,” Olive admits. “At $20 a pound, it can get pretty pricey.” Olive keeps it as an appetizer on his ever-changing menu so he can be sure not to run out. Even purchasing 200 to 300 pounds at a time can’t provide enough product for a regular entree portion. “We buy as much as we can find, whole, and then clean them and blast freeze them,” Olive tells me. “I don’t know how we cooked before the IQF freezer,” a device that allows the fish to stay as fresh as the day it swam.

Whole Foods offers lionfish in some of their Florida stores, but as of yet, no seafood markets in our area offer it. Those who dive will enjoy the hunt, but cleaning the fish around its venomous spines can be a little tricky. Seek help the first time you attempt it, Olive advises.

This spring, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama put up $10,000 in prizes for a lionfish tournament that harvested 2,140 pounds of lionfish in just 10 days. A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but Olive appreciates the effort. “After a roundup, many people donate the fish to our restaurant since we are experienced and prepared to process and serve them. Nothing goes to waste.”

As we reach the end of the resort’s boardwalk, having watched stingrays and dolphins swim alongside charter boats and center-consoles out for a day of recreation, you can’t help but think about the impact one powerful species can have on an ecosystem. Olive smiles and puts back on his signature do-rag and sunglasses as he heads back toward his beachfront kitchen, confident in the knowledge that he is creating more than just delicious food. He is creating a legacy as well.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Pan-Roasted LionFish

4 lionfish fillets, or any smaller fish such as yellowtail snapper, mangrove snapper, flounder or tripletail
salt and pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig parsley
1 clove crushed garlic
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 lemon

Lightly season fillets with salt and pepper. Heat cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add olive oil. Lay fish fillets flesh side down. Sear for approximately 2 to 3 minutes, depending on thickness of fillets. Flip fillets and turn heat off. Add sprigs of thyme and parsley. Add garlic and butter. Melt butter, then squeeze lemon into pan. With a tablespoon, scoop butter mixture back over fish 3 or 4 times. Serves 4.

Limas and Roasted Tomatoes

1 cup fresh or frozen lima beans
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 spring onion bulb, chopped
4 ounces Divina roasted tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 ounce aged sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper, to taste

Simmer lima beans in chicken or vegetable stock for 30 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside. In medium saute pan, add oil. Heat over medium. Saute onion until lightly browned. Add roasted tomatoes, garlic and beans. Add white wine, and simmer for 8
minutes. Add vinegar and butter. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Heirloom Grits

2 cups water
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup Bayou Cora stone-milled heirloom grits*
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
pepper, to taste

Bring water and heavy cream to a boil, being careful not to boil over. Whisk in grits. Add 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and reduce heat to low. Simmer grits, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes. Add butter, parsley and pepper.

* bayoucorafarms.com

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Fish Tiradito (Lionfish)

If unable to acquire lionfish, substitute another light fish, such as flounder.

1 lime, zested
1 orange, zested and juiced
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1 serrano pepper, finely sliced
1/4 cup green onion whites
turbinado sugar, to taste and garnish
6 ounces fish, sliced sashimi-style
Maldon salt, to taste and garnish
extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
microgreen, for garnish

In a bowl, whisk together first six ingredients. Season with salt, to taste. Adjust acidity with sugar for spiciness. Place thinly sliced fish in center of serving plate; spoon sauce on and around fish. Garnish with salt, sugar, oil and microgreens. Serves 4.

Want To Go Spear Fishing?

The following charter boats will take you out to the lionfish and let you give it your best shot. Open water dive certification usually required.

Reel Surprise Charters
San Roc Marina, Orange Beach, AL | 251-981-7173

Gary’s Gulf Diver
Sportsman’s Marina, Orange Beach, AL | 251-747-6563

Get In On The Action

Another tournament kicks off this fall

Orange Beach Open Spearfishing Tournament
September 27 – October 12, 2019
With $10,000 in cash prizes

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