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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.

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