'Geography of Risk' Calculates Who Pays When A Storm Comes To Shore

Oct 17, 2019
Originally published on October 18, 2019 2:26 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, journalist Gilbert Gaul, says Americans have chosen to build $3 trillion worth of property in some of the riskiest places on earth - the barrier islands and coastal flood plains of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. In an era of rising seas and increasingly destructive hurricanes, Gaul says an array of government subsidies encourage homeowners and developers to keep building on vulnerable shorelines, and when disaster strikes, taxpayers end up picking up much of the cost of rebuilding, leaving overdeveloped coastlines and wetlands that are much more vulnerable than ever to the tidal surges and heavy rains that come with modern storms.

Gilbert Gaul has reported for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he's the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes - one at the Pottsville, Pa., Republican for a series about the decline of a coal company, and another at The Philadelphia Inquirer about regulatory problems with the nation's blood supply. He spoke to FRESH AIR'S Dave Davies about his new book, "The Geography Of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, And The Cost Of America's Coasts."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Gilbert Gaul, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I learned from your book that this practice of building vacation homes by the thousands on these barrier islands is a relatively recent thing in American history. You tell us about a guy in the early 20th century in New Jersey named Morris Shapiro. What'd he do?

GILBERT GAUL: So Morris Shapiro was one of the seminal builders of vacation homes, beach houses, along the New Jersey coasts and, really, along the national coasts. He arrives in the United States in 1899 through Ellis Island, and then the family moves to Elizabeth in north Jersey, along port city there. Morris is 18 or 19 years old at the time.

A few years later, he starts the largest shoe store in Elizabeth, N.J., selling galoshes or boots to the port workers in Elizabeth for 99 cents. He makes a fair amount of money. He realizes one day that real estate is a game to be in. One day in August of 1926, he had purchased a new car - a Willys-Knight sedan. He decides to take it out one Sunday morning and take it for a drive. He sees a sign for a place called Long Beach Island, drives over a rickety wooden bridge, which is only about a foot or two above Barnegat Bay.

At that time, Long Beach Island had maybe 700 people. He sees someone standing outside a clapboard shack. And he gets out and meets this guy, they start talking. Morris asks him if, by any chance, he knows of any property for sale. Just so happens, the man says, I have 53 acres from ocean to bay. I'll sell them to you for $1,000 an acre. He buys 53 acres for $53,000.

I was curious, in 2015, what that would cost today. So I went into the property records in the tax assessor's office and began compiling the information. Turns out, it would cost him about $400 million to buy the property, which is, I think, a 530-fold increase after - just for inflation. So it's a signal for what was to come at the coast. And Morris really becomes one of the seminal builders there of our time.

DAVIES: Right. So he subdivides the - it takes him years...

GAUL: Yes.

DAVIES: ...Before he does this, and he subdivides the properties. And I guess what's distinctive about this is that there were ocean-side resorts for the wealthy...

GAUL: Right.

DAVIES: ...This was for working people.

GAUL: Right. The genius of Morris Shapiro was that instead of building large Victorian hotels or large Victorian houses, he comes to the idea, you know, there is a market for smaller cottages. And he eventually develops this market - I call them blue-collar cottages - because he was focusing on people like teachers, electricians, plumbers, ordinary Americans. And he wanted to develop a market and sell these small cottages to them. And that's exactly what he did.

So the initial cottages he built were, you know, maybe 600 square feet at most versus today where, you know, the average size of a so-called cottage at the beach is more like 3,000 square feet.

DAVIES: So it takes off.

GAUL: Yes. Oh, yes. It - he really begins developing these cottages in the late 1930s and 1940s. The market for second homes at the coast really begins to develop after the war, after World War II - when the economy is booming, Americans have money, they're looking for ways to indulge themself after years of sacrifice.

And the market does take off. And Morris Shapiro ends up developing roughly 2,000 cottages on this barrier island that I focus on in New Jersey called Long Beach Island, which today is the largest and richest barrier island in the state.

DAVIES: So other developers see this opportunity, they follow suit. There is commercial development that comes with it as well as government investments in highways and other infrastructure. And we got real shore towns now that are real kind of destinations that are - people are really - this thing is really booming now.

GAUL: It is, today. So we have $3 trillion worth of property, I estimate, along what I call the near coast, from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast.

DAVIES: So this thing really gets moving. There are a lot of people living at the shore, and these houses are built. And then in 1962, a nasty storm, a nor'easter, comes. What happens?

GAUL: The Ash Wednesday Storm of March 1962 is one of two seminal events that defined the mid-Atlantic coast - the other one being Hurricane Sandy or Superstorm Sandy, as other people call it, in 2012. And the '62 storm was not only unusual in terms of the meteorology of the storm. There were five high tides. Water just piled up and piled up over three days. It wrecked the mid-Atlantic Coast, just blew it away.

The Shapiros thought - and by that time Morris had died, and it's Jerry and Herb running the business, the sons - and they thought - in fact, Herb told me this several times - they thought they would never sell another cottage, the damage was so destructive. And, in fact, within two months, they were back in business. The business began to boom afterword. They had two record years in a row selling houses.

And what that tells you is that storms are a kind of clearing mechanism at the coast - a form of urban renewal at the beaches is the way I describe it in the book - because they clear out older homes, more vulnerable homes. And people come in with money - speculators, realtors and other folks - and they buy up the properties, sometimes for cheap, and then begin to build newer and larger homes. And that's how the coast developed.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess what's interesting about that is that one might think if you see a storm coming through and literally destroy anything that was there, you might think - if I build here, that's quite a risk.

GAUL: So one of the...

DAVIES: Why didn't that deter people?

GAUL: Yeah, yeah. No. I mean, one of the thing - because there were - really, all the incentives were to - in place - were to build, not to step back and pause. After the '62 storm in New Jersey, Richard J. Hughes - who was the governor at that time - did something that was really interesting. He said, you know, let's pause for six months and think about the coast and think about what we want the coast to look like, given what we've just gone through.

And then he said that the damage was so extraordinary that we needed to be a lot more cautious about the way we developed at the coast. He proposed a hundred-foot buffer from the sand dunes backward, where there would be no building. Even the Corps of Engineers thought that was a good idea at the time.

And what happened was he sent out his labor and commerce secretary, Raymond Male, to give the message to the beach town mayors and the coastal legislators. And they, of course, hated the idea because all their economic incentives are to build - I mean, if you - if you're the mayor of a town, you don't want to be smaller. You want to be larger. And so even though, at the coast, it's a lot riskier, there are far more risks - they want to build.

DAVIES: Right.

GAUL: And they did.

DAVIES: So this sets up a phenomena that we see...

GAUL: Yes.

DAVIES: ...In ensuing decades. You now have mayors of coastal towns whose economies are built on the seaside development. And again and again, governors and environmental officials come down and say, wait. Wait. We need to be smarter, we need to plan. We need to restrict. And the mayors say...

GAUL: No way. They fight it off. And there is a long history in New Jersey, in particular, of this occurring. But it's also occurred in North Carolina. It's occurred in South Carolina. It's occurred in Florida. It's occurred in Texas. I focused on New Jersey because I knew this barrier island really well. And I lived there. And I've been going to it for 57 years.

And after the '62 storm, there were several other attempts at the state level to slow development at the coast because it was basically unchecked. And the other important fact here is that the mayors and the councils of these towns control land use. They control what goes where, not the state. And the state said, well, let's slow down a little bit. They proposed several different pieces of legislation that would have limited development somewhat - not entirely by any stretch but somewhat. And each time, the mayors fought back.

At one point in 1980, Long Beach Island even hired Burson-Marsteller, which at the time, I think, was the world's largest PR firm and - out there, to help them organize what we would call today a grassroots political organization to beat back attempts to limit development. There was a meeting at St. Francis Center on Long Beach Island where they packed 1,500 people into this place on a day when the temperature was over a hundred degrees, no less. And as you would expect, they just attacked the state officials over and over, and they beat back the attempts to limit development.

DAVIES: Gilbert Gaul's book is "The Geography Of Risk." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert Gaul. His new book is about government policies that have promoted sprawling development on our coasts and waterways and how taxpayers assume much of the cost of rebuilding when disasters occur. His new book is called "The Geography Of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, And The Cost Of America's Coasts."

So we have this dynamic where there are, you know, regulators who think, gosh, we need to control this. But there are powerful economic interests, you know, represented by politicians who say, nope. Nope. There's money here. There's property we have to build. Then the other element is, who pays...

GAUL: Right.

DAVIES: ...When there is a disaster? And going back...

GAUL: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...To the 1962 storm...

GAUL: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...John F. Kennedy was in the White House. People said, we need help. What happened?

GAUL: They got help. What - again, another thing that I was interested in was this question of risk. How do you apportion risk? How much of it is going to be private? How much is it going to be public? So I went back and traced the history of risk at the coast, if you will. And it really begins in 1950, when legislators passed the first Disaster Relief Act legislation. And that creates a disaster relief fund and that covered not just coast...

DAVIES: That's Congress - the federal fund.

GAUL: That's Congress. And that covered everything - so if you had a wildfire back then or you had an earthquake or whatever, tornado. But it evolves as the modern coast develops as millions and millions of houses get built along the coast. Surprise - what happens? The expectations of the property owners change. And they expect, after storms, that the government will be there to help them.

That ends up doing a couple of things, and it ends up giving people incentives to rebuild. It ends up lowering the risk of those property owners, and that's what we see. Kennedy was under pressure after '62 to do something to help the beach towns and the property owners, and they passed what was then a fairly modest disaster relief appropriation of about $25 million. But it's just a signal to what begins to happen.

Afterward, we continue to see more and more federal programs to come in after storms. And we begin to see more and more federal programs before storms to build bridges, to build utility - grants for water systems, grants for public buildings, grants for fire engines - everything you could possibly think of. So it's happening both at the front end to incentivize people to build in these places they shouldn't be building, coastal floodplains, and then after the storms, we then pay these towns to rebuild, basically, in harm's way.

DAVIES: So you have a circumstance, you know, where there's development on the shore, there are politicians who represent those communities and want help. The federal government has established that they will come in and rebuild, which means that the risk of homing these - of owning these beautiful places, a lot of it goes to taxpayers. And now we have a changing climate. How does that affect things?

GAUL: Right. I should add that - this puts this in perspective, I think. In the 1950s, when the modern coast was just being built, the federal government covered 5% of the cost of recovery after hurricanes and coastal storms - nor'easters and things like that. Today, it covers 70% on average of the cost of recovery. And in some cases, it covers 100%. So for example, after Hurricane Sandy, any beach town in New Jersey that was already in the process of widening its beaches - and that would be by the Corps of Engineers and largely the federal government - legislation - or a line was put into the legislation - disaster recovery legislation calling for the Corps of Engineers to pay for 100% of the cost of putting sand in front of multimillion-dollar, oceanfront mansions.

DAVIES: Let's just pause on this for a second.

GAUL: (Laughter).

DAVIES: We're talking about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers...

GAUL: Yes.

DAVIES: ...You know, these symbols of efficiency and infrastructure.

GAUL: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And they're dredging sand from...

GAUL: Yes, from the ocean.

DAVIES: ...The ocean and barging it in...

GAUL: Yes.

DAVIES: ...And building beaches.

GAUL: Yes, the Corps - I mean, this is not all that the Corps does by any stretch. But it is an unusual thing - at least in my opinion that they do - that they have gotten in the business of widening beaches. And what I mean by that is, literally, if a beach is eroding - and that's what barrier islands do. They naturally erode. If it gets bad enough and if they can get a legislator to get them on the list - the approved list for beach projects, the Corps comes in and - with its contractors. And it begins pumping sand onto those beaches. Millions and millions or hundreds of millions of dollars to widen beaches. And the largest benefit by far is - goes to the people who are lucky enough to own these million-dollar and multimillion-dollar houses parked right behind the dunes and then the next two rows of houses right behind them. It does almost nothing to the backsides of barrier islands in terms of benefit.

DAVIES: This was amazing to me when I read in your book that the Corps of Engineers have, at least with these kinds of projects, become entrepreneurs of a sort.

GAUL: Sure.

DAVIES: I mean, you quote one of the guys in the Corps of Engineers saying kind of, you know, rhetorically to coastal towns, if you don't have a federal project, we want to talk to you. We are pulling out all the stops to get funding for you.

GAUL: Yeah.

DAVIES: They're developing work for theirselves. And that means getting federal money to move sand...

GAUL: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: ...To beaches.

GAUL: Yeah, yeah. The Corps is by no means agnostic in any of this. They're an active player in all of this. They spend a lot of time holding the hands of the beach town mayors where they work. I've seen it in person. And they spend a fair amount of time going down on trains to Washington to meet with coastal legislators who either want a project or have a project or want more money. That's simply the way it works. Back in - oh, gosh, I don't know - 20 years ago or so, the Corps had this light go on in the office one day where they decided that it was a business, and they needed to act in a more businesslike fashion. And that's literally the way this all works.

They have pumped millions and millions of cubic yards of sand up and down the coast. In New Jersey alone, I want to say it's it's 100 million cubic yards of sand. I mean, that's enough to fill up football stadiums a dozen times, to put it in some sort of perspective. It's a ginormous amount of sand. We've spent nationally somewhere in the magnitude of $5 billion widening beaches up and down the coast. In New Jersey, really, it's interesting. We've started so many of these things at the coast. New Jersey is famous for really being the place that invented this piece of business and in helping to get the Corps into the business of beach building for millionaires.

DAVIES: So the Corps works with the local politicians. They talk to their representatives in Congress. They find the money. And then private contractors who work for the Corps do all this work. And the projects are in the tens or hundreds of millions.

GAUL: Hundreds.

DAVIES: Does it help? Does - is it a lasting improvement to these communities?

GAUL: No, no. It's a Band-Aid. So pumping sand on the beach helps you in the short term, but the sand doesn't stay. Once upon a time, the engineers - and I like these guys, by the way. I think they're great guys. They're just doing what they're doing. But once upon a time, they used to argue that the sand remained in place, that it - essentially implying that it was a fix. But the reality is that it doesn't. And there are all kinds of reasons to explain why that is. But the reality is that they pump sand, and then if you have a nor'easter and you have winds in New Jersey out of the Northeast, prevailing winds and big waves - that they do exactly what you would think they would do. They wash away the sand.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Gilbert Gaul, author of "The Geography Of Risk." After a break, Gaul will explain the origins of federal flood insurance that has subsidized risky development in coastal areas. And he'll talk about a resort island in the Gulf of Mexico that he says has been a magnet for violent storms. Also, John Powers will review the new HBO series "Watchmen," which is adapted from a comic book series and stars Regina King. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert Gaul. His new book, "The Geography Of Risk," is about the sprawling development of vacation homes and rental properties in coastal areas that are vulnerable to increasingly destructive hurricanes in an age of climate change. Gaul says an array of federal subsidies have encouraged this development, transferring much of the financial risk of seaside living from private investors and homeowners to taxpayers.

DAVIES: One of the things you note in the book is that with climate change, with warmer oceans, hurricanes are getting - seem to be getting bigger and more powerful.

GAUL: Right.

DAVIES: And they're not just wind events. They're - you call them rain bombs.

GAUL: Yeah.

DAVIES: And in some respects, flooding is a huge part of this.

GAUL: It is. It is. We think of the word hurricane, and we think of wind - right? - because they can generate, in the case of a hurricane like Michael in Florida in last year, 155-mile-per-hour winds. So that alone's going to cause monumental damage. But hurricanes are also flood events. And what we've seen in recent years - the science isn't fixed on this, why it occurs, but we've seen a number of very large hurricanes, like Harvey in 2017, Florence in 2018, Imelda just this summer, where they roar up to the coast and stall out.

Harvey's a great example because Harvey was, you know, this big blob of a storm. It reaches the Gulf Coast, and it literally just stalls out. It's spinning around at three miles an hour slowly migrating towards Houston. The warmer ocean creates more fuel for that hurricane, water vapor that, you know, in simplest terms, just get sucked up into that vortex. And then it ends up getting dumped on to Houston. And it was biblical - 40 to 60 inches of rain in places where we had built over coastal prairies, tidal creeks, places you never should have developed.

But Texas, having no real zoning laws, (laughter) developers built wherever they wanted. And Houston was a growing place. I mean, it was a big place. You had big oil. You had lots of health care. And it just sprawled all over the place. But these places where they shouldn't have built flooded epically. Over 125,000 houses flooded in Harvey. It's estimated that 75,000 of those houses were seriously damaged. They were at ground level. They needed to be elevated. But the costs of elevating those houses would be, my math suggests, at least $15 billion.

And that's just one town. This is happening everywhere. These rain bombs are happening on the East Coast. They're happening all across the Gulf Coast. And this is one of the signs of climate change.

DAVIES: Another one of the ways that the federal government supports development at the shore is through flood insurance, which is available to homeowners.

GAUL: Right.

DAVIES: This goes back, I guess, to the '60s, really. And when Lyndon Johnson was going to do this, there was a commission that said, we can do this. You can provide...

GAUL: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Federal flood insurance, but you ought to impose some conditions.

GAUL: Right. So the short history of flood insurance is that private insurers used to sell flood insurance back in the '20s and '30s. But then, after a series of rain events and flood events, especially the 1927 Mississippi flood, they got out of the business. There was this tortured struggle for decades over should the federal government get involved and sell flood insurance. Lyndon Johnson comes in after Hurricane Betsy in '65 and calls for another study of can the government do this.

They come - a guy by the name of Gilbert Fowler White, who is one of the nation's most eminent geographers at the time, is the head of the panel leading this study. They produce a report. And he concluded that, yes, the government could offer a flood insurance program, but it would only work if under a number of conditions. It had to include limitations on new building and flood plains. The premiums had to be high enough that they reflected the actual risk. The government shouldn't offer subsidized flood insurance. And it should be phased in over time.

DAVIES: And you don't want to subsidize it because you don't want to distort the market, right?

GAUL: You distort the market when you have a subsidy in it, yeah. Yeah. It leads people to do things that ordinarily they wouldn't do if they had to pay for it (laughter).

DAVIES: Right.

GAUL: Yeah.

DAVIES: So what a rational thought...

GAUL: And so (laughter)...

DAVIES: Rational ideas and wise warnings. What happens when the Congress acts?

GAUL: Well, what happens is we of course include subsidies, rather dramatic subsidies, where people are paying, you know, as little as, you know, 20, 30, 40% of the actual risk in their premiums. There really was very little land use. And that goes back to the fact that, again, it's the beach towns that control zoning.

DAVIES: Little restrictions on land use.

GAUL: Yeah, yeah. And development just accelerates even with - as a result of flood insurance, actually. The premiums are really low. And then we rushed in. Instead of phasing it in by doing maybe a test case or two in a state, which is what Fowler suggested, we introduced it nationally right away.

And the other critical point was we brought in flood insurance without building in money for reserves. And that's important because when you have a giant storm like a Katrina, where you had billions and billions of flood claims, there's no money there to cover it because you have no reserves. No private insurer would be allowed to operate this way, but the government does because it uses the U.S. Treasury - federal taxpayers, if you will - as its financial backstop.

So in a case like Katrina, the Congress just says, OK, we'll raise the bar and allow the flood insurance program to borrow that money to pay the claims with little or no expectation that that will ever be paid back. So you end up with $40 billion in debt in this flood insurance program. It's a program that was broken from day one and is still broken.

DAVIES: Right. And there have been efforts to reform it.

GAUL: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Has anything changed?

GAUL: Not really, not in a major sense. There are still subsidies. There are still properties that flood over and over and over again and are still paying fairly low premiums. In 2012, there was a serious attempt to reform the program that would have introduced higher premiums and shifted the risk back onto property owners in a more rational way.

And it - the legislation passed by large numbers in both the House and Senate and was adopted. And as soon as it came into play, people began to see what it would do, and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. The property owners, the politicians, the mayors all began to object that these rates were going to drive people away from the coast. So then the politicians in Washington, including the backers of the original legislation, withdraw, and we end up passing new legislation that slowed down rate increases and even reversed some of the rate increases. And that's where we stand today.

DAVIES: So what kind of coastline has this left us? Where are we?

GAUL: Well, as I said earlier, we have $3 trillion worth of property built on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Much of it is located on barrier islands, which by definition are eroding and have little if any elevation and are the most vulnerable to hurricanes and to sea level rise. We have built, in addition, along our back bays, our sounds and our estuaries, many of which are prone to flooding increasingly with sea level rise, and we saw that in Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in New Jersey. We have filled them with housing as well, so we've created this dynamic where we have all of this property at risk in an age where those risks are accelerating and increasing. That's not good.

DAVIES: Gilbert Gaul's book is "The Geography Of Risk." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA GARDIER'S "FJORD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert Gaul. His new book is about government policies that promote sprawling development on our coasts and waterways and how taxpayers assume much of the cost of rebuilding when disasters occur. His new book is "The Geography Of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, And The Cost Of America's Coasts."

Millions of people today live on our, you know, barrier islands and coastal waterways and bays, but a lot of the property that, you know, taxpayers assume the risk for are second homes and vacation homes.

GAUL: Yes.

DAVIES: Do we have any idea how much?

GAUL: Well, I tried to figure that out in the context of the flood insurance program. And I did the math, and I came up with a figure just for flood insurance. The federal government is insuring 1.3 million beach houses and second homes. It could be higher. It could be as high as one of every three properties that are insured by the federal government.

There are certainly millions of people living along the coast, but one of the things that I found and write about is this phenomena where much of the coast is becoming investment property. It's beach houses and second homes. But unlike in the past where people would go and actually live there during the summer months, the owners may be there for two weeks, and then the rest of the time, the place is empty. They don't even rent it out. They're not even trying to run it as a business. It's just an investment property, just like a stock or a bond. And that, in my mind, sort of changes the way I think about not only those houses but the impacts that those investment properties are having on the culture and economics up the coast.

DAVIES: You know, as develops - as coastal communities face rising seas and bigger storms, you've - there's the prospect of these big, expensive places being ripped apart and rebuilt. Is there a place that you studied that's an example of this?

GAUL: Well, yeah. The place I studied was smaller, but it still illustrates the risk. I have been following a place called Dauphin Island, which is off the coast of Alabama in Mobile. It's a 14.5-mile-long barrier island shaped like a drumstick. The eastern end of it is a fairly lush maritime forest and reasonably wide. And then the western end of it, facing the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico, has no elevation, and yet that's where all the big houses are, and they're all second homes. They're all beach houses. I asked the mayor, well, why did they build there? You know, that's the riskiest possible place. And he said, well, they like the view.

The place has been hit by over a dozen hurricanes in the last few decades, including several major hurricanes. After I went there initially in 1998, after a small Category 2 hurricane that wiped out 30 or so of the older houses - literally pitched them across the narrow end of the barrier island like bowling balls into the houses along the Mississippi Sound - the owners then elevated their houses 15 feet in the air. They built new houses up on these stilts and were safe. They were safe until they weren't.

So what happened was in 2005, Hurricane Katrina rolls along. We all know it's a big, massive, violent storm. It pushed 19 feet of storm surge over the western end of Dauphin Island. Nineteen feet swept away those houses off of the stilts. I think 400 of the 450 homes there were wrecked. I managed to get on the island a few days after the hurricane, and I was staggered by what I saw. All you see are these empty stilts bent in the sand where the houses used to be sitting up in the air like birdhouses. It just shows you that elevation only gets you so far.

DAVIES: And they rebuilt again?

GAUL: Of course. Yes. For this book, I spoke with the Realtors and went and visited again and spoke with the mayor again. And yes, it's all rebuilt. And now the construction line for the - original construction line for the houses is a hundred yards offshore, underwater in the Gulf of Mexico (laughter). The houses are just sitting there at the edge. There's no elevation, no sand dunes, nothing. They're just sitting there at the edge of the water and, in some cases, in the water.

DAVIES: So up on stilts.

GAUL: Up on stilts - but again, taunting nature until the next big hurricane roils up the Gulf. And there will be one.

DAVIES: So this might be the kind of place where a rational government policy would say, you can't rebuild here.

GAUL: Right. It absolutely would be. But the - Dauphin Island depends on those houses for its tax revenues for the local government. I will tell you, though, that after Katrina, 15 of the homeowners there had the good sense to say, we've had enough. They raised the white flag. And they asked to be bought out. Dauphin Island, the town, filed an application with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has various programs to fund buyouts - they're not very big, but they have them - asking to be bought out to pay for these 15 houses.

Two years went by. They finally got a letter back from FEMA. And the letter said, sorry; we don't have enough money. You guys don't qualify. Well, if these homes don't qualify in a place like Dauphin Island, which has been smashed over and over and over again, you know, what's going to happen?

DAVIES: Right.

GAUL: We simply don't have enough money to buy out all these mistakes we've made at the coasts.

DAVIES: So - I mean, this sounds like kind of a mess - an overdeveloped mess.

GAUL: It is.

DAVIES: What would a more rationally managed coastline look like? What can we do?

GAUL: So there's two questions there. A more rational coastline wouldn't look at all like it looks today. It would have far fewer houses. It would have much more open space, whether that would be state or federal parks, something like that - because when you have storms, those are places where the water can go and you can literally live with the water. The water gets stored there during the storm, and then it drains back out. It doesn't do any damage. You only have damage when you develop in coastal floodplains. If there's nothing there, you don't have damage. So that's a no-brainer. There would be less. It would be very different. It would be more public, less private.

In terms of what we can do now, what folks call resiliency or sustainability at the coast - and this has become a new big industry - you know, you can keep widening beaches. You can elevate houses. You can elevate roads, things like that. But you're only buying yourself time. In some cases, you might be buying a few decades. In some cases, you may only be buying yourself a few years depending upon the wild card of how much sea level rise accelerates in the future and whether you have the bad luck of getting hit by one of these huge hurricanes.

DAVIES: Gilbert Gaul, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GAUL: Thank you.

GROSS: Gilbert Gaul spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book "The Geography Of Risk." Coming up, John Powers reviews the new HBO series "Watchmen," adapted from a comic book series, starring Regina King. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUADRO NUEVO'S "TU VUO' FA' L'AMERICANO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.