There were just a few modest homes and fish shacks along this white-sand barrier beach when Hurricane Frederic whipped through in 1979. "Frederic took it all," Gulf Shores Police Officer Glen Kittrell recalled.
After Frederic, Kittrell helped his father build the first small condominium complex on the Gulf Shores beachfront, a lime-green, horseshoe-shaped moneymaker called Sea Breeze. Soon dozens of developers were building condos here along the Gulf of Mexico, increasingly taller, grander and closer to the water -- Beachview, Surfside, Southern Shores, Crystal Beach, Crystal Shores. Hurricane Ivan did not take them all.
But Ivan still inflicted far more property damage to Gulf Shores, because there was so much more property for it to damage. This is the basic reason that multibillion-dollar storms such as Charley, Frances and Ivan -- all striking within five weeks -- are becoming increasingly common in the United States. This has been an unusually active hurricane season, and many scientists believe that global climate change could intensify storms.
Gleaming in the sunlight like a vision of paradise, these sugary shores have always inspired passion. Civil War Adm. David Farragut had his eyes on them during the Battle of Mobile when he famously exhorted his men: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" But while developers have taken his advice to heart, hurricanes have as well. Barrier islands are designed to absorb the brunt of storm surges and tropical winds, whether they are populated or not, and that is what Gulf Shores did during Ivan.
"When people want to build on the beach, they build on the beach," said Mike Howell, the county building inspector. "Citizens have that right. But this is what happens."
The six costliest storms in U.S. history in terms of property damage -- even before the most recent assaults -- have all struck since 1989. Federal scientist Christopher Landsea predicted a few years ago that Florida's hurricane losses in this decade would be at least six times the losses of past decades, and he has already been proved right. The main difference is that 13 million Floridians now live in coastal counties, up from 200,000 a century ago. That is why federal agencies have cleared enough debris from Charley and Frances to fill half a million dump trucks.
Charley battered the luxuriously developed barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva; Frances shredded the similarly exposed retirement communities of Vero Beach and Port St. Lucie; now Ivan has ravaged coastal resorts such as Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama as well as Fort Walton Beach and the spring break mecca of Panama City Beach in Florida. All three storms tore up boardwalks and marinas, motels and condos, souvenir shops and swimming pools -- the vulnerable infrastructure of beachfront tourism.
"What can people expect when they build on shifting sands?" asked David Conrad, a water resources specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, and the author of a study on repetitive flood insurance claims called "Higher Ground."
Les Stinson, 52, the owner of Muscle Car Mania on the road to Gulf Shores, remembers playing hide-and-seek in the barrier island's 40-foot-tall dunes when he was a boy. "It was magical," he recalled. "But it's all been leveled." In 1983, Kim Stewart, 45, opened the fifth restaurant on the Gulf Shores beachfront, Kim and Julie's Spot; today there are 130, and many of them have two-hour waits for tables during the summer.
The official population of Gulf Shores is about 5,000, but it multiplies by 10 every June. It is not an off-the-beaten-track secret anymore. Real estate brochures gush about "luxury, upscale beachfront homes" with "commanding, spectacular, panoramic, awesome views," providing "the ultimate holiday experience for you and your family!"
"As they build more condos, more people come," Stewart said. "It's a matter of supply and demand."
Ivan knocked a temporary dent into that supply, shattering windows and flooding lobbies all along the condo canyons of Gulf Shores. The storm littered the beach with debris, and created a breakwater of storm-buffeted shopping carts, automobile tires, roofing tiles and deck chairs on neighboring Orange Beach. It obliterated a small amusement park and many of the flimsier cottages and eateries along the shore, but for the most part it inflicted only superficial damage to the sturdier concrete high-rises.
It is highly unlikely that Ivan did more than rearrange the deck chairs of the Gulf Coast's development explosion. For example, it will not affect a deal that Stewart had cut to sell his restaurant to a developer, who plans to build a beachfront mega-mall with 192 condominiums. If Gulf Shores wants to keep up with its tourism rivals, Stewart said, it needs bigger and fancier buildings along its shores.
This is the scenario that Sonny Hankins, a former county commissioner in Baldwin County, says he feared after Frederic. Hankins, a former adviser to the late Alabama governor George Wallace, says he argued that the federal government ought to buy the sheet-white quartz beach and much of the road along it to preserve the dunes and allow development to proceed at a safe distance from the sea.
"We would have saved billions and billions of dollars, and we wouldn't have these buildings in the middle of the beach," Hankins said. "But private enterprise, you know, you can't fight that."
In 2000, a study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that Americans have built more than 350,000 structures within 500 feet of U.S. coasts, a figure that does not even include buildings in better-protected cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The study by the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment also warned that regardless of the risks from storms, coastal erosion could claim one in four of those buildings within the next 60 years.
That is one reason the federal government participated in a $6 million project to renourish the Gulf Shores beach with 1.8 million cubic yards of sand in 2001, and in another $1.5 million project to dump an additional 700,000 cubic yards after Tropical Storm Isadore in 2003. "Building this berm in Gulf Shores will help protect lives and property when the next storm strikes," FEMA head Michael Brown said at the time.
But Ivan blew much of the new sand back into the Gulf, and much of it onto West Beach Boulevard. "We're driving on it right now," Kittrell said while steering past the wreckage of his home town. Critics complain that beach renourishment projects merely encourage coastal development before they end up back in the sea, but FEMA official Todd Davidson said the development is coming anyway. He explained that the projects are literally designed to fail -- and absorb blows that would otherwise strike people and property. "It's a sacrificial project," he said. "After the storm, you rebuild it."
Still, Hankins says that the natural dunes of his youth were much better shock absorbers than any government project that was born to fail. They were prettier, too, and less expensive. But he knows they did not generate the revenue of a 20-story building. And he knows something else about restoring the beach of his youth: It is too late.
Traffic is backed up on Highway 59 as residents wait to cross over the Intracoastal Canal into Gulf Shores. The town's official population is 5,000, but streets swell with summer tourists.