Gulf of Mexico
Tropical Storm Lee floods Dauphin Island in September 2011. AP PHOTO/DAVE MARTIN

On the Alabama Coast, the Unluckiest Island in America

Dauphin Island has been battered by more than a dozen hurricanes and tropical storms in recent decades. But that hasn’t stopped homeowners on the beach resort from repeatedly getting federal aid and insurance payouts to keep rebuilding in the same vulnerable locations.

On the night of September 12, 1979, a bruising Category 3 hurricane named Frederic roared up the Gulf of Mexico and across Alabama’s Dauphin Island before surging into Mobile Bay. The 120-mile-per-hour winds and 12-foot storm surge toppled the only bridge to the island and destroyed 140 houses. For several years, the only way for workers to commute to nearby Mobile was by ferry.

Travel guides from the era described Dauphin Island as one of the Gulf’s hidden gems, a quaint, unpretentious oasis of pastel bungalows, white sugar-sand beaches, and spectacular sunsets. They didn’t mention hurricanes or the fact that the 14-mile island was slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

Dauphin is shaped like a drumstick – widest on its east end, where there is a lush maritime forest, a historic Civil War–era fort, and a nationally celebrated bird sanctuary; and pinched on its west end, where it has lost over 100 feet of shoreline to erosion and storms in the last few decades, and vacation houses now perch like birdhouses above the water. It is one of a score of low-lying islands, some no more than sand spits, which dangle like a necklace along the Gulf Coast from Alabama to Louisiana. Once a formidable barrier between the Gulf and the mainland, the islands are now tattered and uneven, some dense with sedge and trees, others ripped asunder by storms and all but vanished beneath the water.

Frederic wasn’t the first hurricane to pummel the Alabama resort, nor would it be the last. For as long as anyone has kept records, Dauphin Island has been a magnet for violent storms. In the early 1900s, five powerful hurricanes lashed the then mostly empty barrier. More recently, a dozen hurricanes and tropical storms have battered the resort, including Camille in 1969, Frederic in 1979, Georges in 1998, Ivan in 2004, and Katrina in 2005. In 2017, Nate, a weak storm with 65-mile-per-hour winds, pushed several feet of water into dozens of homes.

The most expensive homes are on the island’s vulnerable west end, where Katrina gutted hundreds of houses, sweeping some off 15-foot-high stilts.

“Dauphin is like a bowling alley,” said Hank Caddell, an environmental attorney in Mobile. “It keeps getting hit with all of this heedless destruction.”

It isn’t hard to see why. The razor-thin section of coast where Dauphin Island lies is a veritable runway for late-season hurricanes sprinting up the Gulf of Mexico. The island is a complex geometry, bordered on the east end by the busy Mobile Bay Ship Channel, with towering sand dunes in the middle and virtually no shoreline or dunes on the pancake flat west end.

It might seem surprising, then, that the largest and most expensive homes are located along the vulnerable west end, where Katrina gutted hundreds of vacation homes, sweeping some off their 15-foot-high stilts into the Mississippi Sound. Yet that’s where owners and investors want to build. “It’s flat and has the best views,” said Mayor Jeff Collier.

Map of Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Map of Dauphin Island, Alabama. COURTESY OF FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX.

Under Alabama law, there’s little Collier can do, assuming he even wanted to stop them. The state has no requirements for setbacks. Property owners can — and do — build right to the water’s edge. In theory, there is a state construction line limiting building beyond it. However, the line was adopted in 1973 and now sits about a hundred yards offshore, under the Gulf of Mexico.

“The state has never gone back and reset the line to take into account erosion, storms, or sea-level rise,” said George F. Crozier, the former head of a marine research center on the east end. “It’s kind of a joke. It fell into the water.”

“We’ve had a run of bad luck,” Collier allowed. “We’ve had a run like every year with a hurricane. The west end is especially vulnerable. It washes over in every storm. Like I say, the west end goes under in a heavy dew.”

Dauphin may be especially vulnerable to storms and rising water, but it is hardly alone. Federal data show that damage from hurricanes is increasing dramatically, topping nearly $750 billion dollars in the last two decades, or about two-thirds of all U.S. hurricane damage in the last century. That’s far more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires combined, with three catastrophic hurricanes in 2017 – Harvey, Maria, and Irma – alone resulting in $300 billion in damage.

Now, with the planet warming, sea levels rising, and oceans heating up, providing more fuel, hurricanes are likely to grow even larger and more destructive in the future, says Kerry Emanuel, one of the leading atmospheric scientists and hurricane experts, based at MIT. By the next century, a Category 5 hurricane – such as Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas this week – could go from being a one-in-800-year storm to a one-in-80-year storm. Unsurprisingly, bigger hurricanes cause more damage, and with more property than ever lining the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the risk of future epochal storms is only likely to increase.

Much of that damage will be along the heavily developed but low-lying barrier islands of Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina, where millions of second homes, investment properties and beach houses crowd the coast. But even Mid-Atlantic states are at risk, as Hurricane Sandy showed in 2012, with $72 billion in damage. The Gulf states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas are especially vulnerable because of their shallow profiles, heavy rates of erosion, and lack of sand dunes and other natural defenses.

Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed 450 of the 500 houses on the west end of Dauphin Island in 2005. NOAA/NWS3


On Dauphin Island, most of the income comes from the 500 or so houses on the two-mile-long west end, nearly all of which are rental properties and vacation homes owned by absentee landlords. Some rent for up to $5,000 a week. Critically, the owners pay a special fee to the town. “Without those funds, Dauphin Island would be broke,” Mayor Collier told me. “Our budget is only about three million dollars, and we need every penny we get.”

Following each big storm, Collier and Dauphin Island homeowners follow a familiar script. First, they plead for disaster aid from the federal government. Then they file claims with the federal flood insurance program. Finally, with tax dollars and insurance payouts in hand, they rebuild in the same dangerous location, assuming it isn’t underwater. That’s what happened after Frederic, and after Georges, Ivan, and Katrina, and is now happening again after Nate.

Dauphin has received at least $100 million in federal aid, which works out to $170,000 for each of the island’s 1,200 residents.

It is unclear how much federal aid Dauphin Island has received over time. The records are incomplete and don’t go back far enough. But it is at least $100 million and some put the figure as high as $200 million. Crozier told me it could be higher yet. But even the lower estimate works out to about $170,000 for each of the island’s 1,200 year-round residents.

“Dauphin Island, and especially the west end, is a poster child for all of our failed public policies, local, state, and federal,” Crozier said. “Really, it is a case study of schizophrenia. The property owners want to be left alone, except when there is a storm. Then they want the taxpayers to pay for new roads and bridges and sand and [to] help them rebuild.”

Paradoxically, Hurricane Frederic, which struck Dauphin in 1979, couldn’t have made landfall at a more convenient time for residents of the resort. Four months earlier, President Jimmy Carter shifted most of the nation’s disaster-response functions into a newly created department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With widespread damage along the central Gulf Coast, Hurricane Frederic presented FEMA’s first test.

Two days after the September storm, Carter flew over the coast to see the damage firsthand and to reassure Alabamans that the federal government had their backs. It was part of a standing tradition among presidents. According to press releases, at the time of his visit he promised to restore Dauphin Island and the rest of the Gulf Coast. FEMA set aside $200 million for Alabama’s recovery. Millions went to Dauphin Island to repair roads, cart away debris, and help year-round homeowners pay bills while they rebuilt their homes.

An island resident sits on the site of her former oceanfront home, which was destroyed by Hurricane Elena in 1985. BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

The Frederic aid package included $33 million to rebuild Dauphin Island’s only bridge. After the storm, islanders were forced to use a ferry to get to and from their mainland jobs, adding hours to their workdays. Local politicians decided to build a new elevated concrete span to the mainland. Federal taxpayers picked up 100 percent of the cost, which eventually swelled to $40 million.

The Carter presidential archives include correspondence suggesting the president’s aides worried that a new bridge would encourage a wave of development on the vulnerable barrier island, leaving even more homes exposed to future hurricanes. Nevertheless, they issued the check, and the new bridge opened in 1982. That same year, the Reagan administration awarded Dauphin Island a $9 million grant for a sewer plant to serve the west end, where growing numbers of vacation homes were being built.

In September 1998, Georges, a Category 2 hurricane, swept 41 bungalows from their concrete pads along the Gulf of Mexico and hurled them into houses near the Mississippi Sound. I was in Mobile at the time and drove over to see the damage. While there, I encountered Gail Leacy taking pictures of her damaged home on the sound side on the west end.

“It just flew at us,” she said, pointing to the crumpled roof of a bungalow sandwiched beneath her elevated house. Leacy and her husband, John, a builder, lived in Mobile but visited their Dauphin Island home frequently. Thankfully, she said, they had federal flood insurance and would be able to recoup some of their loss.

When FEMA agreed to pay for a temporary sand dune, environmentalists protested it would only encourage owners to rebuild in harm’s way.

Dauphin Island received over $2 million in federal disaster aid, including $1,125 to replace the town’s welcome sign, which reads, “The Sunset Capital of Alabama.” FEMA also agreed to pay for a temporary sand dune to protect the remaining beach houses along the sand-starved west end. Environmental groups protested that the dune would encourage owners to rebuild in harm’s way. Nevertheless, FEMA paid over $1 million for a five-foot wall of sand designed to last five years.

The temporary dune washed away in less than two years. FEMA officials then wrote a second check for $4 million for another temporary dune. It, too, washed away.

After Hurricane Georges, many property owners on the west end elevated their houses on pilings. The hope was that surge from future storms would pass harmlessly beneath their homes. Many were raised 10 to 15 feet in the air.

It was a good idea as such ideas go. But then Hurricane Katrina pushed a 19-foot wall of water across the west end in 2005, destroying or damaging 450 of the 500 houses there. It was staggering to see. Entire rows of vacation homes were swept from their lofty perches and pitched into the Mississippi Sound. All that remained were empty pilings, debris, and the effluvial stench of rotting seaweed.

Katrina twisted and undermined the pilings of the Leacys’ home. “We’re still standing, but we’re pretty severely damaged,” John told me at the time. He was getting ready to file another claim with the federal flood insurance program, though he stressed the payout wouldn’t cover his losses. When I asked how many claims he had filed over the years, John said, “To be honest, they probably lost money on me.”

Construction workers rebuild a house destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. AP PHOTO/ROB CARR

He wasn’t alone. The flood program has lost a bundle insuring Dauphin Island property. After Katrina, payouts surged nearly fourfold, from about $15 million in 2005 to over $75 million in 2017, records show. Remarkably, 100 houses accounted for over half the losses. One owner has filed a dozen claims and received over $300,000, double the value of his house, according to data provided by the National Resources Defense Council. Another filed 10 claims for almost $400,000. His house was worth $180,000.

Brad Cox lost 37 of the 90 rental properties his company, Boardwalk Realty, managed at the time. “Well, thirty-eight if you include the one that burned,” he elaborated. Cox was standing next to his crumpled office days after Katrina when I found him. His cell phone was already ringing with owners inquiring what it would take to rebuild. Home values dropped for a time after the storm. But then owners began building bigger, more lavish beach houses along the west end, “some with six bedrooms,” Brad said, marveling at their size. A local newspaper announced that Dauphin Island was back.

About the same time, the Western Carolina University geologist Rob Youngwas testifying on Capitol Hill about coastal disasters. “I can tell you with near certainty that we will be rebuilding the west end of Dauphin Island again at some point in the next 10 years. Probably sooner, rather than later.”

In October 2017, I met George Crozier in the parking lot of his old employer, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a nonprofit educational and research institute on the east end. The plan was for Crozier to lead me on a tour. But a week earlier, Hurricane Nate, a Category 1 storm, had washed over the island and the west end was still flooded.

The real estate website Zillow still assigns property values to parcels of land on the west end of Dauphin Island that are now underwater. ZILLOW

We concentrated on the rest of the island, which includes a forest of towering pine trees, an 126-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary, and, surprisingly, an 18-hole golf course, where Jeff Collier served as the golf pro until recently.

For years, the east end had been growing. But lately it had begun losing sand. Locals blamed the nearby Mobile Ship Channel, which they contend is disrupting the flow of sand along the island, robbing sand from the east end and depositing it in the middle of the island, where huge dunes are migrating landward and threatening to bury several houses on the otherwise sand-starved island. For reasons no one can quite explain, the sand migrating along the island abruptly stops near a town pier here. The beaches below that point, including the heavily developed west end, have lost sand and are vanishing.

The loss has been dramatic – about 100 feet of shoreline over three decades. Dozens of pilings that once held houses are now buried beneath the water. Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, Alabama coastal regulators have allowed property owners to erect seawalls and bulkheads around their sinking properties, which the environmentalists say exacerbates the sand loss.

Following each storm, Mayor Collier sends out trucks and bulldozers to collect the sand that washes onto the west-end roads and place it back on the shore. “We try to put the beach back on the beach,” he said. Widening the beach more significantly would cost about $60 million, money Collier says the town does not have.

Dauphin received $7 million to widen newly eroding beaches. But the patch didn’t last long, as Hurricane Nate swallowed 20 percent of the sand.

A few years back, Dauphin Island received $7 million from the Deepwater Horizon settlement fund to widen the newly eroding beaches in front of Fort Gaines and the Sea Lab. The locals were especially proud of their new, wider beach, and the town even received an award as one of the nation’s “Best Restored Beaches.” But the patch didn’t last long. Hurricane Nate swallowed 20 percent of the sand, and now Collier hopes FEMA will reimburse the town for the 35 truckloads of sand it plans to cart over from the mainland.

“We have many challenges,” Collier said. “But solutions are few and not cheap.”

At 56 years old, Collier is tall and lean, with thin blond hair and a golfer’s tan. He grew up on the island and has been its mayor for over two decades. He said he has “gone to hundreds of meetings and written hundreds of letters” in an attempt to find an answer to the island’s erosion problem. “But at the end of the day, it is frustrating that we still don’t have a solution. It’s almost like we are expendable.”

Maybe it was time to consider abandoning the unlucky barrier island and move to higher ground? I suggested.

Mayor Jeff Collier talks with local news reporters ahead of Hurricane Nate in 2017. FRIENDS OF DAUPHIN ISLAND

Collier quickly rejected the idea. “The analogy I use, it is like losing an arm or a leg. Do we give up and die, or find another way to keep going? I look at the island the same way. I am a fighter. I don’t give up.”

After Katrina, a few dozen homeowners were ready to sell their homes to FEMA and leave the space vacant. Dauphin Island officials even helped with the paperwork.

“I was confident it was going to work,” Collier said. “We finally had people coming to the table waving the white flag.”

But the mayor didn’t hear anything for two years. “At the end of the day, we got notification they weren’t going to fund us,” he said. “They didn’t say why, except they didn’t have the money. I was disappointed and surprised. My take was that they figured those houses would be under six feet of water, so why bother?”

Adapted from Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts by Gilbert M. Gaul. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 3rd 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Gilbert M. Gaul. All rights reserved.

Gilbert M. Gaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the new book The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas and the Cost of America’s Coasts, published in 2019 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux. MOREABOUT GILBERT M. GAUL →

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