Observations from the Gulf Coast…

Harvard Ash Center
Aug 21 · 10 min read
Damage to Long Beach, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy FEMA/Mark Wolfe

by Doug Ahlers, Program on Crisis Leadership Fellow

For the past few years, I have been living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In my backyard, I routinely unearth debris from Hurricane Katrina that works its way to the surface after a rain: bricks, a shard of a dinner plate, a bathroom tile, a sneaker, a windowpane, part of a toilet. They are constant reminders of the storm surge that swept the coast bare.

There is a lot to be learned from the experiences of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida Panhandle residents. Within the past fifteen years, due to Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008, and Hurricane Michael that devastated the Florida Panhandle last year, almost every coastal community from Galveston to Apalachicola has experienced severe damaging effects of a hurricane.

These Gulf Coast communities know disaster, and they are painfully aware of the risks. Yet, they rebuild despite the risk. Construction (and re-construction) booms along the Southern beachfront.

While some residents are wedded to place due to a lack of resources that would allow moving, the majority have the ability to relocate, yet they have doubled-down on their commitment to living in harm’s way.

So, the question is why. Why do people along the Gulf Coast take the gamble of living in a place with such a large known risk?

To find answers, I began asking that question to people I knew and to strangers I met in my travels up and down the Gulf Coast. I also kept my ears perked at BBQ’s, beach bars, church suppers, and in the checkout line at the Winn-Dixie. Hurricane season comes every year, and with it comes anxiety and preparation, and lots of discussion of the risks of living down at the end of Hurricane Alley.

At first, I thought the reason must be denial, or cognitive bias, where people perceive the risk to be lower than it is in reality. But it turns out that the residents are well aware of the actual risk, and yet decide to live here in spite of it.

Some of the explanation may lie in the principle of self-selection — various hurricanes have weeded out the risk-averse, leaving a population that has a higher than average tolerance for risk.

During my travels, the most widespread reason I heard for defying the known risk was lifestyle or “way of life.” Again and again I have heard, “We live here because this is our way of life.”

Topophilia, or love of place, is important in explaining why people remain committed to living in a place even after a disaster strikes

In many coastal communities around the world, fishing and shell-fishing are both a livelihood and a way of life, and that is certainly true for commercial fishermen and their families along the Gulf Coast. Families involved in sport fishing, charter boats, marinas, and the maritime industry also often share this love of the sea and weddedness to place.

It is understandable that people with long family histories of deriving their livelihoods from the sea would choose to continue to live in known high-risk areas. But the “lifestyle” and “way of life” reason for bucking risk seems to apply to a much broader group of residents, those who do not live off the sea or make their livings from the maritime industries. Coastal communities provide an outdoorsy, sportsman lifestyle that is attractive to many people. Passions for boating, sailing, recreational fishing, hunting, birdwatching, surfing, kayaking, etc., can lead people to make a lifestyle choice to live along the coast. For them, the reward is worth the risk. All coastal communities have this allure. For example, in New England, residents of the Cape and the islands share this same passion for a coastal lifestyle, but the risk is decidedly less, so the benefit/cost tradeoff makes more sense. What I have observed is that the passion for the Gulf Coast lifestyle is very, very strong — enough so, as to make the risk-reward calculus make sense to these residents while seeming irrational to outsiders.

One coastal lifestyle segment is often best personified by Gulf Coast native son, Jimmy Buffet. This group, affectionately known as “Parrotheads,” include many a beachcomber who has chosen to live a relaxed way of life in the beach communities along the Gulf Coast. This group is far larger than just the “Endless Summer” beach bums. It includes doctors, lawyers, accountants, and people from just about any walk of life — all who share a strong commitment to the beach culture.

In 2006, Jimmy Buffet recorded “Bama Breeze,” a song about a beach bar based on the legendary Flora-Bama bar that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (rebuilt in 2010). The song has become an ode to “the many Bama Breezes that dotted the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, before the storm[s].” The chorus goes, “You’re one of our own down there. You never drink alone down there. Good God, I feel at home down there.” This last line about feeling at home down there captures the sentiment of Gulf Coast residents and the feeling of deep connection to the beach culture. In a word, it is “home.”

For the elderly, for example, this may be the only place they have ever known. It is the place where they put down roots, raised a family, and have a lifetime of memories. Moving elsewhere can seem overwhelming. I was talking to a neighbor who told me that she was just too old to try and start over somewhere else. She said that she would rather die here than have to move to a place where she would be a stranger; that would probably kill her anyway, she thinks, so why not take the risk of dying here in her own home, the home she has known all her life.

Topophilia, or love of place, is important in explaining why people remain committed to living in a place even after a disaster strikes. Individual identity can be wrapped up in one’s sense of home, and there is often a deep pride of place, a strong sense of community, and a feeling of belonging.

Several pundits have commented on the role of fundamentalist religious beliefs in regard to climate change and other issues. And I have observed that religion can also be a factor in regard to risk tolerance. This is the bible belt, where religion plays a central role in the lives of many; faith guides their beliefs and actions. This is also evangelical country, and I have come to realize that the belief in end-times and the rapture is widely-held here in the deep south. Many people have a preordained or fatalistic view of risk, coupled with a particular view of their fate as a result of a disaster. This goes beyond just, “God’s will” or “God’s wrath,” to a belief that the end is imminent and to be welcomed. I have heard repeatedly that they defy or even embrace the risk because they believe it does not matter; the end is nigh.

Not all, however, are rooted by conviction or choice. For those people who would prefer to relocate to lower risk communities, the cost of avoiding risk may be prohibitive. They may be economically trapped in place and forced to accept the risk.

Low-income families may have high transaction costs associated with moving that they simply cannot afford. For those who live paycheck-to-paycheck, it is an insurmountable challenge to come up with a security deposit and first and last month’s rent for a new place out of harm’s way, let alone to be able to survive being out of work for however long it takes to find employment in a new town. Economically disadvantaged families also often rely on extended family, friends, neighbors, church members, and other social networks for support (part of the art of surviving in poverty). This social capital is lost when moving to a new place — another high transaction cost of moving.

There are also the business owners who are more or less chained to place — unable to move out of harm’s way even if they want to. In this category are people who own businesses that cannot be moved elsewhere, for example, beach tourism businesses. But it also includes the majority of small businesses that have capital invested in place — capital that cannot easily be moved (buildings, fixtures, equipment). And even businesses with little fixed capital would not be able to survive the loss of their current customers and the time and cost needed to establish a new customer base elsewhere. These small business owners are functionally trapped. Beyond the high transaction costs of relocating, they seem to also have their pride, identity, and feeling of self-worth wrapped up in their businesses, in their position in the community, and in their customer base. So, there is also a high emotional cost of moving — and therefore a lot of friction preventing relocation.

In stark contrast to those families and businesses that may be trapped in place and forced to accept risk, there are others who can absorb “tolerable loss.” These are the affluent, who take a calculated gamble. Beachside living for the wealthy will always be attractive enough to risk the possible loss. Usually, these are second homes or primary homes for people who have second homes elsewhere. Many of these people chose to be underinsured but willing to take the loss (often as a tax write-off), or they choose to pay extremely high insurance premiums. For the affluent, the cost of risk is inelastic. As it increases for these people (either through higher insurance premiums or by absorbing uninsured disaster losses), they do not consume less risk. Simply put, they can afford risk.

Policies that try to force relocation will meet with resistance, and residents with a deep connection to their homes and communities will likely fight to stay.

There are also business and employment opportunities that present themselves after a disaster that make it lucrative for some people to stay. Contractors and construction workers are prime examples. I recently asked a homebuilder in Mississippi why he had chosen to stay. He told me that he and his family just could not pass up the opportunity for employment.

Of course, there are still those residents who underestimate risk. I have a neighbor who, in the days leading up to the recent Hurricane Barry, insisted that it would fizzle out before reaching land because that is what hurricanes always do. It did fizzle out and he feels that his belief is confirmed. He is now even more convinced that storms die out before making landfall, despite the fact that the ground he lives on was 28 feet underwater during Hurricane Katrina. His opinion is based on a “recency bias,” a sampling bias where recent events are given more weight than those of the past. This is a common human error due to the salience of recency. The last three hurricanes in the area did fizzle out, and that is what sticks out in my neighbor’s mind; but a much longer view of the data shows a different picture of the risk.

Some people also seem to be discounting the risk. Another neighbor told me that Katrina was a once in a lifetime occurrence, a black swan.

This discounting of risk is not helped by our terminology about the “100-year storm.” People hear that term and think they are safe for another 100 years, but in reality, it just means a 1% annual probability of exceedance. So, a 100-year storm could happen two years in a row. As in a roll of dice, the probability is not dependent on any prior rolls (or storms).

Katrina was a category 3 storm (a 100-year storm) but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the storm surge that struck Mississippi as being that of a 400-year storm. People like my neighbor hear that Katrina was a 400-year event and think they are safe from ever having another Katrina. These residents who underestimate risk are not in denial–they remember Katrina vividly–but they think lightning will not strike in the same place twice.

Of course, these reasons for defying risk are not mutually exclusive. And there are many other reasons why people choose to live in areas of known high risk, probably as many reasons as there are people living along the Gulf Coast.

The attitudes of Gulf Coast residents toward risk may have policy implications. With the consequences of climate change looming, many policymakers and urban planners have suggested potential risk reduction strategies, such as voluntary buy-outs of high risk properties, mandatory buy-outs (eminent domain), the adoption of zoning laws to prohibit building in risk zones, subsidies of relocation expenses, incentives for moving, and disincentives for staying.

Incentives to relocate, voluntary buyouts, and moving subsidies may work for some residents (those who want to leave but are economically trapped), but incentives and subsidies will have little effect on anyone who has a very strong emotional attachment to place. Those who can afford risk are also unlikely to be swayed by incentives, and they will be largely immune to disincentives. Subsidies to businesses to cover relocation expenses may either be too costly for state or federal governments to bear or will be too small to cover the full costs of moving and starting over. Policies that try to force relocation will meet with resistance, and residents with a deep connection to their homes and communities will likely fight to stay.

It is going to take a lot to get these reluctant people to move out of harm’s way on the Gulf Coast. Recently, I was talking to someone at a BBQ. She told me about her family’s experience in the Florida Panhandle during Hurricane Michael last year. Her cousin said, “I rode that storm, and I never want to ride it again.” But did the cousin stay and rebuild? Of course she did. After all, it is home.

Doug Ahlers

Doug Ahlers is a Senior Fellow at the Program on Crisis Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he researches and writes case studies on disasters and disaster recoveries around the world. Ahlers founded the Harvard Kennedy School Broadmoor Project, a collaborative redevelopment effort between the Katrina-devastated Broadmoor New Orleans neighborhood and the Kennedy School, where he served as an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, teaching courses in disaster recovery management and resilience. He is also a cofounder of Recupera Chile, an initiative of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. Recupera Chile is a multi-year project focused on helping earthquake and tsunami devastated Chilean communities recover and rebuild. Ahlers has served on the Smithsonian Institution’s National Board and the board of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock and received his BA from URI and MJ from LSU.

Harvard Ash Center

Written by

A global research center housed at Harvard focused on making the world a better place by advancing excellence and innovation in governance and public policy.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade