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Column: Building property in high-risk areas is like playing roulette
Rudi Kiefer

Audiences react differently to presentations about weather and climate, especially when it’s about climate change. Young groups, college freshman classes or high school seniors, are dazzled by images of flash floods and windblown destruction. Older audiences are often focused on the aftermath: what’s lost, what’s the cost, what will it take to rebuild? 

The coming years will bring up aftermath questions repeatedly, especially on the coast of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Barrier islands are particularly vulnerable to storms, and yet they show some of the most intense housing development in the country. Record dollar figures after each major hurricane event are largely due to ever-rising real estate prices, building costs and tightening housing density. 

I don’t visit casinos and don’t like gambling. But I know that in playing roulette, one should only risk amounts that one can afford to lose. The losers are determined by where exactly the ball drops. It’s similar with housing on barrier islands. No hurricane can destroy the entire coastline from Miami Beach to Norfolk. Players lose different amounts of money in roulette, and within a given storm, there are such variations as well. The northern and southern ends of barrier islands are picturesque with their curving waterfronts. However, this means that buildings placed there are on an ocean “point.” The waves form an arch around them. Wave force is perpendicular to the wave lines, so when you draw a few arrows, you see that they converge on a few select buildings. That’s where the damage tends to be greatest “when the ball drops.” Other factors involve wind direction. The southern part of a hurricane tends to produce less flooding than the northern one where it sweeps through a town. It’s the difference between southwesterly wind coming from an inland direction and wind pushing ocean water towards land from the northeast. Your luck depends on whether the ball drops on red or on black. A 20-mile shift in the storm’s path can make all the difference.

People wishing to own a retreat where they can enjoy watching a sunrise over the water while having breakfast, or an afternoon dip in the ocean, find themselves in the middle between the promises of real estate agents and the dire warnings of scientists. When it comes to high-risk real estate like barrier islands property, the roulette rule is best: Play only what you can afford to lose.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of physical science at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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