The last thing Buck Lee expected after Hurricane Ivan gutted this narrow sliver of paradise in 2004 was a land rush. Yet, only weeks after the bruising storm leveled hundreds of vacation homes on the sugar-sand beaches, a flotilla of speculators appeared.
"I couldn't believe it," recalled Lee, a former county commissioner who helps to run the island government. "People from all over America were driving around here with their windows down and their checkbooks out offering to buy houses on the spot."
In a season of monster hurricanes that have wreaked so much death and destruction, Pensacola Beach offers a lesson in why coastal resorts often come out of a storm more prosperous than ever -- helped along by federal subsidies and tax breaks that are available no matter how many times the same area gets hit.
Although Pensacola Beach escaped Katrina's worst, four other storms battered the town in the past year, destroying 450 homes. A year after Ivan, piles of debris still line narrow, sand-filled streets. Collapsed homes dot the Gulf of Mexico and Santa Rosa Sound. Tangles of iron and concrete are all that remain of some hotels.
Property values, though, continue to defy expectations. Lots that sold for $1 million before Ivan now garner $2 million. "You would think after seeing all of the damage, who would want to live here?" said Lee, steering his yellow Hummer past a handmade sign advertising a lot for $1.8 million.
Hurricanes, it turns out, can act as a perverse force for redevelopment along the nation's barrier islands and coasts. In a beach town, they often weed out older, less valuable properties, encouraging investors to build bigger and more expensive homes and hotels. That pushes up property values overall.
"There are very large incentives to develop in hazardous areas," said Raymond J. Burby, a University of North Carolina professor of land use and environmental planning. "We have federally subsidized flood control and hurricane protection works. We subsidize flood insurance. We have tax write-offs for disaster losses. All of this massive federal relief makes people whole. The federal message is 'Go ahead and develop these areas.' "
In Pensacola Beach in April, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a $10.9 million grant to restore an eight-mile stretch of beach that was gored by Ivan, part of about $2 billion statewide in federal aid for the 2004 hurricane season to repair roads, bridges and utilities and haul away debris. Billions more in aid to individuals, low-interest loans and federally backed flood insurance payments are also aiding Florida's recovery.
By contrast, only a fraction has gone to encourage vulnerable coastal communities to get out of harm's way. An analysis of disaster payments shows that FEMA spends about $10 subsidizing rebuilding for every $1 it spends on steps to reduce future storm damage.
The pattern can be seen in Pensacola Beach, once a modest enclave of cinder-block bungalows that is rapidly morphing into an exclusive community of towering condominiums and multimillion-dollar Gulf-front properties.
Ivan wiped out $300 million worth of homes and businesses. But having fewer homes for sale "turned what was already a hot market into an inferno," said Chris Jones, the Escambia County property appraiser. He said property values increased last year by $800 million, to $2.9 billion. "All of that appreciation was in the land."
Much of the construction on Pensacola Beach occurred during a decades-long lull in hurricanes. But recently major storms have been roaring up the Gulf with regularity. First, there was Erin in August 1995. It was followed by Opal, which propelled a 15-foot wall of water across much of the Panhandle coast. In 1998, Georges knocked down dozens of vacation homes. Then came Dennis, Ivan, Katrina and Rita.
"It's time we catch a break," said Fred H. Simmons Jr., a real estate agent who lost eight of his 12 rental properties in Ivan. Nevertheless, he expects the island's market to recover stronger than ever, a trend he said he first noticed after Opal in 1995.
"After every hurricane there has been a brief lull and then it comes back with a roar," he said.