Time for a managed retreat

We did not save the best for last on our Forgotten Coast Tour. 

In fact, on the very first day of Bike Florida’s most popular small group tour our riders were treated to something truly extraordinary. Call it a blast from the past.

Leaving Port St. Joe cyclists headed west on U.S. 98. On their left the aqua blue Gulf of Mexico glistened in the sun, and no wall-to-wall condos blocked that extraordinary view. No cookie-cutter chain restaurants. No glass towers blotting out the sky, housing northern retirees determined to spend their final years perched on the edge of paradise. 

Cycling past the quirky El Governor Hotel, the Crab Shack, Toucans and the Grey Whale. Stopping for a break at the Visitors Center, next to the Giant Chair. 

Mexico Beach in all its retro glory. Looking still as though it had been ripped from the pages of a 1960s-era travel guide.

Last year we had to cancel our tour because Hurricane Michael got there first, leaving much of the Forgotten Coast disheveled and almost all of Mexico Beach in ruins. And today, eight months later, Mexico Beach is still mostly rubble. Many of its residents continue to live in wretched conditions as they wait for vindictive members of Congress to stop playing games with a long delayed disaster relief bill. 

Politicians from the President on down have promised to put things back the way they were. But you really can’t put Mexico Beach back the way it was. When rebuilding begins in earnest, the ubiquitous condos and towers and cookie cutter chains will inevitably replace the modest beach houses and mom-and-pop motels that gave the town its charm. 

Which begs the larger question: Even if we could put Mexico Beach back the way it was, should we?

Given what we know about the inevitability of sea level rise. About climate change generating ever more extreme hurricanes. About the corrosive march of coastal erosion despite our best efforts to armor against it.

Not to mention the spiraling fiscal liability of supporting a national flood insurance program that pays to rebuild in areas that have flooded before and will certainly do so again. 

“Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas,” noted the New York Times in 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 

Seven years and several hurricanes later, we’re still giving scant consideration to whether it makes sense to rebuild vulnerable communities like Mexico Beach. 

Which is not to say that disaster victims should be abandoned. A saner policy would make displaced residents whole again by giving them the means to rebuild – just not in the same place. In return for that compensation, coastal and flood plane properties would revert to conservation, never to be built upon again. 

A so-called “managed retreat” policy would, over time, not only move residents inland and out of harm’s way, but also enable coastal areas to “heal themselves,” as it were. Construction being a main cause of coastal erosion 

“Managed or planned retreat…allows the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded,” explains beachapedia.org. As the shore erodes, buildings and other infrastructure are either demolished or relocated inland.”

Mexico Beach was a true Florida treasure. But we know from bitter experience that it is possible to love our Florida treasures to death. 

Better to let it go and fondly remember Mexico Beach the way it was. 

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and one-time executive director of Bike Florida. This column was published in The Sun on June, 2, 2019.)

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