In Spite of Recent Hurricanes, Coastal Property Owners Are Building Even Bigger

Despite forward-looking environmental management and land-use planning intended to reduce future risk, coastal development continues to increase. It can be quite interesting to consider how human decisions interact with natural processes.

Research has found that houses rebuilt in the years following a hurricane typically increased in size relative to their original footprints. Yes, homes were actually built back bigger in places known to be vulnerable to coastal hazards. Recognizing the emerging pattern of these risky investments is an important step toward understanding why people are making them in the first place. 

Expanding Footprints

Coastal property owners could easily be in a storm’s path in any given year. Even with all the coastal homeowners whose houses that had been destroyed by major recent storms, there has been a trend of rebuilding to larger dimensions. Also, houses newly constructed (not rebuilt) after hurricanes in these communities tended to be larger than houses that predated the hurricanes.

How are coastal hazards factored into their homeowners’ economic decisions? The answer is not yet clear, but two factors stand out:

  • Changes in local planning laws
  • Engineered hazard protections.

Many coastal communities have updated their building codes in recent decades in order to make houses less prone to damage in major storms. But storm-proofing improvements haven’t always been effective. Even some homes elevated on pilings experienced more storm damage, then houses that were not elevated. Although, precautionary regulations are better than nothing, and efforts are growing to provide guidance for “building back better” after disasters. Unfortunately, avoiding such requirements is also quite common. Properties built prior to the inception of new building codes may receive different requirement from local planning and enforcement authorities. 

The Risks

Engineering projects such as beach nourishment (adding sand to eroded shorelines), may also indirectly encourage development. Experts call this pattern, the “safe development paradox,” in which hazard protections promote risky land-use decisions. Many beachfront houses built in the last decade are far larger than older houses, and the size difference is most pronounced in these nourishment areas.

Since beach nourishment became commonplace in 1960, the direction of average shoreline change has reversed, expanding seaward by roughly two inches per year – even as sea levels rise. Beach nourishment seems to make shorelines appear more stable than they actually are.

The trend of building back bigger could decline if the rise of sea level begins to affect markets for coastal real estate and property insurance. Recovery regulations and infrastructure upgrades send mixed signals about whether an area is safe to develop. Ultimately, coastal development is a political issue. With coastal hazards only becoming worse, regulators must ensure that development trends turn towards lower future risk.


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