FL - Ravaged Fort Myers Becomes Magnet for Risk-Taking Property Buyers
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.
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.
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 fasterin elevated neighborhoods with lower incomes than in the low-lying ones that flooded.
In the hours after Ian hit, only rescue workers were allowed onto Estero Island. Greg Dosmann, a 60-year-old retired investment adviser from St. Louis who built a 5,200-square foot house there in 2018, wasn’t willing to wait. He chartered a boat with his builder, Tom Potter, to survey the damage.
The house was built with windows, doors and reinforced concrete walls designed to resist winds of at least 170 miles per hour. Dozens of concrete pylons were driven 20 feet into the sand to keep the house from being knocked off its foundation. It had a sacrificial ground floor with breakaway walls designed to give way to floodwaters. With an elevated pool, 12-foot ceilings, elevator and high-end finishes, the house cost roughly $3 million to build, on top of the $1.8 million Dosmann paid for the lot.
Dosmann and Potter anchored close and waded ashore, catching sight of the mansion still standing amid the wreckage of dozens of older houses.
“It performed like it was supposed to,” Dosmann said.
Yet such homes can be money pits even after surviving a storm. One year after Ian, Potter’s crew was still repairing the breakout walls, busted plumbing and other damage. When they are done, Dosmann will be out another $600,000, since he didn’t have insurance to cover all the losses.
“That’s the price of resilience,” said Potter, who charges $1,000 a square foot or more to build a home like Dosmann’s. Few builders in Fort Myers Beach charge under $500 a square foot; that means rebuilding even a modest house can approach $1 million.
Homeowners must bring damaged homes up to standards designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to resist extreme storms if repair costs exceed 50% of the home’s assessed value. It’s a requirement — built into local building codes — intended to spare taxpayers who fund FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program from footing the bill to reconstruct the same structures over and over.
In practice, it means severely damaged older homes must be demolished and completely rebuilt. For many people, that is too high a cost to bear.
“It’s a deeply uncomfortable question,” A.R. Siders, professor at University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, said of the displacement of poorer residents.
“This looks like a good short-term solution because it doesn’t involve the government spending a lot of money,” she said. “In the long-term, it opens up a can of worms.”
The policy can be seen as a form of managed retreat, a wider effort to move millions of people away from perilous locales around the globe.
There are pots of federal, state and local government money in the US to pay for voluntary buyouts of vulnerable homes so the land can be returned to nature or converted into a park. But in Florida, developers and the rich are lining up to rebuild instead.
The rapid transition in Fort Myers Beach has been driven in no small part by the limited amount of government grants available — and the slow process of applying for and securing them — for rebuilding regions at risk of repeated assaults bythe most dramatic effects of climate change. It takes 18 months on average for states to submit project applications and the FEMA approval process takes another four months.
As a result, wealthier homeowners are more likely to be able to make the repairs and wait years to be reimbursed, or worse, to be rejected.
FEMA can take flood coverage away from homeowners who don’t meet the requirements to rebuild storm-wracked properties to higher standards for resilience. It’s also risky for the towns themselves if they don’t enforce those building codes, because FEMA could suspend access to the insurance program for all homes and businesses in the area.
“This was a forced resilient-based gentrification, and a lot of that is driven by FEMA,” said Fort Myers Beach Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt, a former Indiana state insurance commissioner. “The costs have gone up demonstrably — that was happening before the storm but the storm accelerated it.”
FEMA says it provides money to make structures and communities sturdier after flooding events, distributing more than $700 million in the last fiscal year. While it doesn’t base assistance on race or socioeconomic status, the agency said it is studying how it can improve equity and access.
“It is also important to note that although FEMA provides the funding,” said Eric Letvin, the agency’s assistant administrator, “the decision to offer buyouts and which properties to elevate is made by the state using money that FEMA allocates.”
Since Ian hit, 333 homeowners applied for federal funding to elevate or rebuild, including 98 in Fort Myers Beach. But they may not receive the money for another year because of the extensive review process, said Keith E. Pruett, deputy director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management. “We want to do what’s best not only for the homeowner but what’s best for the state,” Pruett said. “What we don’t want to do is get into this cycle where we constantly replace what’s lost with exactly what was lost. If it was previously lost, it’s subject to get lost again.”
Already, the metamorphosis in Fort Myers Beach is forcing residents to make painful decisions. Candy Rahn is one of many who has been forced out.
“It breaks my heart to see what’s happening,” said Rahn, 69, her voice breaking up.
The storm’s surge destroyed the uninsured, 1,200-square-foot cottage Rahn and her husband bought for about $300,000 a decade ago. They couldn’t afford to rebuild to code, so they sold their lot to an investor for $500,000, and found a house near the Fort Myers airport, 45 minutes away.
“I can’t take the sadness away,” she said. “It was my dream. I walked on the beach every day, 5 miles a day.”
Those with the cash say the price of rebuilding is worth paying. Hours before Ian, workers were putting the finishing touches on a $500,000 renovation of Tom VanderBie’s beachfront bungalow, planting palm trees and shrubs. The house, which rested atop 8-foot wooden stilts, had been through at least eight hurricanes in 50 years. Ian erased it.
“We gambled and lost,” said VanderBie, a 60-year-old factory owner from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We knew the risks.”
VanderBie loved beach life and had the money to risk it again. But like many longtime residents, he refused to build the kind of fortified mansion favored by the superrich, which he calls “eagle boxes.” He longed for his old 1,200-square-foothouse, so he’s rebuilding it — 20 feet above the sea and twice the size, for well over $1 million. He will mostly be using his own money, as the old house was only partially insured.