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Four resort destinations that rebounded after natural disasters to be better, safer and greener than before

The scorched stone walls were the only remaining structure in the cliff-top dining room of Australia’s Binna Burra Lodge after a September 2019 bush fire. (Binna Burra Lodge)

For three decades, the Lodge at Gulf State Park was the touchpoint of the coastal Alabama communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach — the site for weddings and proms, the place to go for dinner and a vacation destination for families from across the South. In Roseau, the capital of Dominica, the Fort Young Hotel had stood since the 1960s as one of the island’s largest and best-equipped accommodations. On an island in the Victoria Nile, the team at Uganda’s Wildwaters Lodge was used to riding out the seasonal fluctuations in water levels. And in Australia’s lush Gondwana Rainforests, the Binna Burra Lodge endured for more than 85 years, even as climate change altered the environment around it.

In the space of hours, each of these accommodations were partially or fully destroyed, victims of the same rapidly accelerating climate change that’s incinerating forests in the American West, causing deadly flooding in Europe, melting glaciers and choking out coral reefs across the world. Collectively, they’re just a small part of the larger global crisis. Individually, their losses were deeply felt within their wounded communities, and their rebuildings and reopenings were, either symbolically or directly, an essential part of community recovery.

When nature stripped things down to the foundations, these lodgings were faced with a choice: rebuild in the same disaster-vulnerable manner or use catastrophe as an opportunity. Although their precarious positions — in a rainforest, on top of a river or in vulnerable coastal zones — mean the future is anything but certain, their rebuilding efforts have sought to be more sustainable, more resistant to catastrophic weather events and more in harmony with the natural environment around them.

From twin disasters, a windfall

When 2004’s Hurricane Ivan irreparably damaged the Lodge at Gulf State Park, adjacent buildings and park infrastructure, it wiped out not only decades of local tradition but also an important local economic driver. The park had begun ecosystem recovery efforts when another catastrophe — the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill — caused further harm. Chandra Wright, director of environmental and educational programs at the lodge, recalls that, before the spill, “lots of people around the country weren’t even aware we had beaches in Alabama.” Images of oil-soaked seabirds and blackened shoreline were their introduction to the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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But a $100 million settlement to the state from BP, operator of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, changed the park’s fortunes. Most of the settlement went to park restoration, including the rebuilding of the lodge, which opened in 2018 as a Hilton-
branded property. The from-scratch project has sustainability at its core. Instead of sitting directly on the beach as they formerly did, lodge buildings are now set behind the dunes and raised on pilings. The project meets international benchmarks for environmental and economic sustainability best practices that, according to Wright, “are the driving factor for every decision and carry us forward from an operations standpoint.”

The fortified new buildings, rated to withstand the winds of a Category 5 hurricane, have passed another crucial test. When Hurricane Sally made landfall in 2020 as a Category 2 storm and knocked out basic services across the region, the lodge never closed. Employees whose homes were uninhabitable as well as first responders and insurance adjusters were able to base there with limited power, as lodge chefs used grills and propane stoves to serve up hot meals to anyone in need.

“One of the tenets of sustainable tourism is to give back to the community,” Wright says. “And the lodge is an example of how to do it the right way.”

Wild waters and a ready workforce

Weeks before Nile floodwaters inundated and destroyed large sections of the Wildwaters Lodge, executives Leanne and James Haigh knew they were in for what Leanne refers to as an “extraordinary event.” The luxury lodge sits on an island in the river on the Uganda side of Lake Victoria, miles upstream from two dams that routinely release lake water. “We’ve always dealt with slight fluctuations in water levels,” says Leanne Haigh. But 2019 and 2020 saw record rainfall, and the water, she recalls, “just kept getting higher and higher.”

Two weeks ahead of time, everyone living upstream was advised that the floodgates would be opened to full capacity to relieve both the dams and the already flooded lake communities. The Haighs had time to move most of the furnishings to higher ground and evacuate staff before the river swept through and lifted up structures from underneath, “like a manhole cover in New York City during a storm,” says James Haigh. The prolonged intensity of the floodwaters rendered buildings unstable and unsalvageable.

The first priority in rebuilding was to raise the level of the destroyed main lodge by about five feet — higher than the high-water mark of the floods — and to change its orientation to be more resistant to future flooding. Pandemic shutdowns, when all movement within Uganda was essentially halted, presented an opportunity: a ready local workforce, many of whom had helped build the original lodge. The availability of workers and construction materials, all of which had to be transported to the island by canoe, meant that the rebuild, which started in late January, was finished in less than six months.

“We had about 140 guys from the local village helping us,” says James Haigh, “and at one point, we were the biggest employer in town.” Local women made and sold meals to the workers. With no government support for those left unemployed by the pandemic, the rebuild was a tremendous opportunity to create goodwill, James Haigh recalls. “We proved to a lot of people that we’re there for the long run, that we’re proper partners,” he says. “It was all about standing together.”

Reclaiming heritage from the ashes

Binna Burra Lodge is engraved in Australia’s collective memory. Established in 1933, the remote southeast Queensland lodge, set in Lamington National Park, is considered Australia’s first crowdfunded eco-tourism project and has hosted tens of thousands of the country’s schoolchildren and families.

When the historic timber lodge and cabins burned to the ground in a September 2019 bush fire, its loss resonated across the country. “The property is very deep in the psyche of the people,” says Steve Noakes, Binna Burra’s chairman. And for as bad as things were, Noakes says, no one could have imagined the event was just the start of Australia’s Black Summer — a period of bush fires that devastated the country and broke collective hearts around the world.

Noakes says his first instinct was to push forward with rebuilding, even if he didn’t know how the lodge could possibly bounce back. Not only did the inferno raze lodge buildings, but it also sucked so much moisture from the ground that when seasonal rains finally arrived, the only road leading up to the property soon collapsed. It was nearly a year before demolition could even begin.

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Funding from the government of Australia, insurance payouts and member donations allowed the property to reopen to domestic visitors in September 2020, albeit in a limited capacity. More recent high-end accommodations, called “Sky Lodges,” were set away from the main lodge and survived the fire relatively unscathed. They serve as proof, Noakes says, “that we can design and build tourist accommodations that can withstand a bush fire.”

But Binna Burra had always been a place where people of all incomes could come and experience the park. The fire, Noakes says, “took out all the pricing range in the middle.” Another $14 million is still needed to rebuild the main lodge and restore that midrange. Until then, bunkhouses, campsites and glamping tents will soon be joined by tiny houses, which are being funded through low-interest shareholder loans.

In the meantime, Noakes and his team are trying to recapture the spirit of the former Binna Burra. When a staff member suggested that a surviving historical building become the “heritage hub” of the complex, Noakes says he heard “heritage pub,” and the lodge’s favorite new socializing spot was born. “This has never been just a place to sleep, eat and go for a walk in the woods,” Noakes says. “It’s a place to come together.”

On an island stripped bare, 'we have life'

On Sept. 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria swept over the Lesser Antilles nation of Dominica, leaving virtually every dwelling on the island uninhabitable and completely knocking out the country’s infrastructure, including roads, hospitals and communications. Gregor Nassief, owner of both Fort Young Hotel and Secret Bay resort, recalls that, for days, “the only way to communicate was to write letters by hand and have someone walk to deliver them.”

That’s how Nassief — himself waiting on an airlift rescue after being injured when a landslide destroyed his home — learned that half of the waterfront Fort Young property had been blown away. As he recovered in an Antigua hospital, he heard from someone who had seen Secret Bay from a boat — all the roads were cut off — that it had been wiped out. Still, those losses seemed minor in the face of the devastation across the island. In the weeks and months after the storm, Nassief recalls, “when you greeted a person on the street and asked how they were doing, the answer was always, ‘We have life.’ ”

As he waited for insurance money to allow for rebuilding, Nassief and his team focused on the most pressing needs. “We catalogued what each person had suffered, their injuries and losses, and raised funds from past guests to help rebuild homes, put on roofs and restore communities.” Despite the damage, the Fort Young Hotel remained open as emergency housing for the displaced, as well as for first responders and NGO staffers. “We rationed food, water and electricity, even to guests,” Nassief says.

Once construction began, the storm offered the chance to comprehensively address sustainability. “Secret Bay was already a lot further down the sustainability path,” he says, and it received its Green Globe Certification in 2019. “Because we didn’t cut down trees when we built, we didn’t excavate or build on the flood plain of the river,” the land itself withstood the storm. At Fort Young, restorations have strengthened and greened the property, and eco-certification efforts began in earnest this year. A planned addition was put on hold because of the pandemic, but 41 newly renovated rooms reopened in October. Both Secret Bay and Fort Young are now built to withstand 180 mph winds, and both serve as hurricane shelters; there’s a certain inevitability that, sooner or later, their wind resistance will be tested.

“A hurricane like this creates a huge opportunity, if you choose to see it that way,” Nassief says. “You learn to prioritize what’s most important. We built a stronger team in the long term. And the storm reinforced that what we build is subservient to nature.”

Heath is a writer based in Allerona, Italy. Her website is Find her on Instagram: @myvillageinumbria.

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