The House That Survived Hurricane Michael Reminds Us What Climate Change Will Cost

A aerial flyover of Mexico Beach shows widespread destruction and the one beachfront house that survived largely unscathed.
Gif: Brandon Clement via Storyful

In the sea of destruction that is Mexico Beach, the Sand Palace stands out like an oasis. Hurricane Michael’s wind and waves pitched lesser domiciles off their moorings, tore roofs away, or simply obliterated them. But as numerous news outlets have observed, the stately white house at the end of 36th St. withstood the storm largely unscathed.

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The New York Times broke the story of the house that was “supposed to be a fortress” according to Russell King, one of the owners. He, along with his uncle Lebron Lackey, had built Sand Palace to withstand the big one, in part because they accept the science of climate change and the risk of more intense hurricanes. But if their house is a monument to adaptation done right, it’s also a reminder of how unprepared we as a society are for the climate disasters of the future. And it’s a reminder adapting to climate change is not something we can do at the individual level alone.

CNN chronicled a few of the house’s beyond code qualities that include being built to withstand 240 mph winds (state building code is 120 mph), standing atop 40-foot concrete pilings to handle storm surge, and concrete walls and rebar as well as steel girders. All that, of course, comes with a price tag.

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The architect who built the house estimated its fortress-like nature doubled the price of construction; Lackey told CNN it raised it 10-15 percent. However much Sand Palace cost to fortify, that’s money not everyone has.

Government, with its ability to regulate all manner of things from building codes to where toxic waste can be sited and contained, has a key role to play. It’s clear the climate is headed to a more unstable place even if we manage to cut emissions dramatically, yet adaptation remains chronically underfunded. And a number of efforts to adapt to climate shocks are barely suitable for today’s climate, let alone those that awaits us.

Our current government (at the federal level at least) is actively failing on both climate mitigation and adaptation. At a time when more stringent regulations are needed, the Trump administration is rolling back as many as possible. Its efforts will destabilize the climate further, making the adaptation hill that much steeper to climb.

Florida’s Republican leaders haven’t been much better. Governor (and Senate candidate) Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio have peddled climate denial for years. Scott’s administration infamously banned the very words “climate change” despite the threat sea level rise poses for the state. Miami’s Republican mayor may be a climate leader, but the destruction in the Panhandle is a reminder it takes more than local leaders to do the heavy lift of adaptation.

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Absent strong government leadership, the poorest will continue to suffer the most from climate change. This isn’t just true in Florida. It can be seen in California where private insurers prep high-value homes to withstand flames while their neighbors face it alone with dwindling public resources. Or on low lying islands, where resorts are building monuments to sea level rise while the poor are forced to leave their island homes due to the rising seas.

The scene in Mexico Beach is a microcosm of these issues. What King and Lackey built is amazing, but it also reminds us that while people with means and the will to make climate adaptation investments will be able to eke out a few more years on the water, the rest are at risk of losing it all.

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Managing editor, Earther

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DISCUSSION

guysmileypkt
guysmileypkt

Real Life Architect chiming in, with 5 years of experience on Coastal Construction and the Florida Building Code.

Florida instituted much stricter building codes after Hurricane Andrew demolished Homestead and much of Miami and Dade counties. That entire area has been rebuilt to survive and has generally fared much better in storms since then. Insurance company lobbying has since made the codes even more strict in some places, with rules adjusted as we go along. The house in question was completed a year ago, so it’s totally up to date, and the owners consciously chose to go above and beyond to protect their investment. The house is reinforced concrete, on piles, and elevated a considerable amount to keep the living space above the estimated storm surge height. So its armored against wind and debris, anchored to not move, and has a great chance of being immune to flooding.

Most of this area was built decades before those codes went into effect, so there’s literally no comparison to be made here, nor is there any correlation to climate change. We have known what a storm of this magnitude would do to man made structures long before Andrew’s 1992 landfall. Look back to Galveston in 1900.

Florida has 1,350 miles of coast, and since the latter half of the 20th century its been continuously built upon. Michael carved a path 80-90 miles wide. Storms come every year, and its a gamble if you choose to live on the coast. The city I worked in is very wealthy, but hasn’t had a direct hit since the 50s. If Michael had made landfall there its pre-Andrew neighborhoods would have been equally devasted. It’s not a matter of if it happens, its when.

Florida’s government has its share of problems with environmental stewardship, but the enforcement of a strict building code isn’t one of them.