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Castles on the sand: How Hilton Head helped create the hurricane mess | Opinion

Tired of evacuations turning your life inside out every time a hurricane threatens the South Carolina coastline?

We have only ourselves to blame.

We’re all part of the explosion of development along the coast over the past 60 years.

Evacuations, like the one we went through last week for Hurricane Dorian, take longer. And damage — even from glancing blows — is now astronomical.

Hilton Head Island played a big role in America’s rush to the sea. In the mid-1950s, the island crooned a siren song that was still kind of new: Come, to where you can really live. Escape the rat race. Here, you can be world-class. You can live in paradise.

It worked.

In 1950, Beaufort County had a population of 27,000 hardy souls. Today, it’s pushing 200,000. You can do the math on your calculator, or you can count the cars ahead of you on your daily commute, or waiting to get onto Sea Pines Circle, or heading out for another dreaded hurricane evacuation.

Newcomers were called “burn-the-bridgers” because they wanted to burn the bridge to Hilton Head as soon as they’d arrived in paradise.

But nobody burned the bridge. They widened it.

And Hilton Head residents aren’t the only ones guilty of that.

“America’s coastline counties — those directly adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, or Gulf of Mexico — were home to about 94 million people in 2016,” the U.S. Census Bureau says, “or about 29 percent of the total U.S. population.”

Hilton Head also helped convince the world that it no longer needed beach shacks — simple, relatively inexpensive places built on stilts so flood waters could do little damage. A place at the beach was important, but it wasn’t part of an investment portfolio.

Now, insurance companies won’t even touch the multiple billions of dollars worth of homes in harm’s way in South Carolina. By 1971, the state legislature had to require the insurance industry to make wind and hail insurance coverage available to home and business owners in the coastal area because insurers quit offering it.

Sometimes I think the insurance companies are the only adults in the room.

It’s a similar story with flood insurance. When Congress tried a few years ago to bring market sense to the teetering, federally-backed flood insurance program, America gagged with sticker shock and Congress backed down.

Unfortunately, that shows the way forward.

We must do things no one wants to do. But if we do it, every coastal hamlet will not be a mini-Manhattan.

We fought for zoning in Beaufort County for a long time. But what good is zoning when rezoning is the norm across the county?

We fought like crazy for density limitations. But that also keeps changing. And what good does it do when people can divide their condominium in two, call it a “lock out unit” and double the density? That’s what they do on Hilton Head.

We must quit building in the danger zone. When a place gets flooded once, there’s no sense at all in allowing it to be rebuilt. That also was part of the flood-insurance reform that got shelved.

And where we know that houses will tumble into the ocean due to erosion, quit building the houses. And do not allow rocks and cement to hold the ocean at bay for one house, while speeding up erosion nearby.

Don’t even think about developing vulnerable spits of sand, like they are trying to do near Kiawah Island, or on erosion-prone islands like Bay Point in Beaufort County.

When the state says it’s going to draw a line in the sand and push development landward, do it.

We fought forever to protect isolated wetlands and marsh wetlands. But the regulations are constantly under attack. We have vast housing developments built in swampy land that old-timers knew to leave alone.

Our evacuation fatigue is merely a symptom of a larger American problem — and we haven’t even mentioned the expense of sea-level rise.

We know how we got into this situation. In ways, we tried to prevent it.

It would help if we would start actually doing what we know needs to be done.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Dorian

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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