Gulf of Mexico
Homes remain destroyed in Fort Myers Beach on August 28.

FL - Hurricane-ravaged Florida beach town attracts risk-taking wealthy homebuyers

A year after Hurricane Ian ripped through southwest Florida, wealthy risk-takers are transforming one beach town.

In Fort Myers Beach, many of the middle-class cottages that once dotted the Estero Island town were wiped off the map. Ian killed 21 people and swept away a third of the homes and businesses on the narrow, 6.5-mile-long strip of sand, leaving a blank canvas for affluent newcomers—and a preview of what could take hold in other coastal communities as climate change spawns more intense storms.

Driving along the island’s white-sand beach in his Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Alex King, a real estate agent wearing Crocs and a marlin-themed shirt, points to four mansions taking shape among more recently built, bunker-like houses that survived the storm. They’re surrounded by empty lots once home to decades-old bungalows on wooden stilts, violently cleared by Ian’s 15-foot storm surge in September of last year.

King, a lifelong resident whose grandfather arrived in the area in 1958, is a key player in the island’s transformation. Just off the beach, he swings past a string of lots he’d sold since Ian. Once filled with modest homes, they are among hundreds of recently purchased properties likely to look very different than they did before the storm.

“We were thinking gentrification would take 20 years,” said King, who is 64. “Now we’re thinking of a five-year gentrification.”

Across the US, the wealthy are reshaping landscapes battered by hurricanes, fires and other disasters at a time when such calamities are expected to grow in force and frequency. About 3.6 million Americans are exposed annually to floods, and that could double by 2050 as the population grows in at-risk places, according to one study last year.

Florida depends on luxury real estate for revenue. But as the effects of climate change worsen, taxpayers will increasingly subsidize the costs of beachfront living by the rich, including sea wall construction, beach replenishment and road elevation, as well as sending rescue workers in to save lives in emergencies.


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Buyers and developers with the resources to build fortress-like properties that can survive extreme weather have swooped into Fort Myers Beach, showing how hurricanes often don’t deter those who can afford the cost of adapting. This form of climate-driven gentrification—occurring near areas of natural beauty like national parks and pristine white-sand beaches—is displacing people who lived or vacationed there for generations but can’t afford to rebuild or pay rising rents.

Rich pushing out the poor

The influx of money into Fort Myers Beach is helping to make some people whole, filling gaps that insurance won’t cover and even providing profits for some of those whose homes were destroyed. But these sellers are forced to leave a community they can no longer afford, using their cash to build a life somewhere cheaper and farther from the front lines of climate change.

“In the long run, it will help move people out of harm’s way because the market is responding to where the risks are,” Jesse Keenan, a professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University in New Orleans said of Fort Myers Beach. “The downside is the beach becomes less and less accessible to average people.”

Some officials in disaster-ravaged places have tried to slow the churn. Hawaii Governor Josh Green proposed a moratorium on purchases by out-of-state speculators in the Lahaina community of Maui following the worst wildfires in the state’s history this summer. Elsewhere, the rich have sought safety, pushing out the poor. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, property values rose faster in elevated neighborhoods with lower incomes than in the low-lying ones that flooded.

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