Could Palm Beach face similar fate from major hurricane?

Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 2:35 PM EDT
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In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Floridians on the east coast are watching closely the devastation and recovery that’s occurring on the west coast’s barrier islands.

Many people are wondering what would happen if a similar storm hit South Florida or the Treasure Coast.

WFLX took a closer look at the risks on our coast and what is the reality when it comes to rebuilding.

Detached from the mainland, barrier islands are a tropical delight, but the risks of living on them are described in their name.

"The barrier islands are, in a way, exactly what they sound like, sort of the first line of defense," Will Butler, a Florida State University associate professor for the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, said.

These islands take the brunt of the storm surge, helping to protect the mainland.

Butler said barrier islands are dynamic, forming naturally but constantly changing due to sea level rise.

"We don't build in a way that's designed to move with that very dynamic environment," Butler said.

Annie Davis has lived in Manalapan for decades, a town on the South Palm Beach barrier island.

"It gives you a certain sense of vulnerability living on a barrier island," Davis said.

Seeing the destruction on the west coast from Hurricane Ian reinforces why she heeds warnings to evacuate.

"I'm only on the second floor," Davis said. "I saw how high that water got, and I would leave."

But knowing the risks, she still wouldn't move now.

"I make a choice to live on a barrier island," Davis said. "It's my home."

But could we see similar destructions on our barrier islands?

"Basically, the structure of each island will determine the extent to which sea levels rise or storm surge will impact whatever is on that island," Butler said.

Experts said it all comes down to elevation, and not all barrier islands are created equal.

"In Palm Beach, the town of Palm Beach, there's actually some pretty high ground in certain parts of the barrier island," John Renne, Florida Atlantic University director for the Center of Urban and Environmental Solutions, said.

Renne said some of the limestone which makes up the barrier island is higher in some areas — which could help during major storm surge — but it will not prevent it.

"We could absolutely have a major storm surge that would certainly devastate our barrier islands in a very similar way to what we see on the west coast," Renne said.

So, what would rebuilding look like?

Experts said newer codes would raise the elevation of homes but is that enough?

"We can be on higher elevation land, and we can start reducing how much we allow to build in lower elevation areas," Butler said.

"It's very hard to tell people they can't rebuild," Renne said. "That's why it's so important for us to have a plan in place with codes and zoning."

Renne thinks there need to be uniform codes while Butler said we need to start building above the standard code.

Davis believes rebuilding will inevitably change some of the barrier island's charm.

"It will never look the same," Davis said.

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