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Post-Hurricane, Should Florida Rebuild Bridges Faster or Better?

The state wants to quickly rebuild the Sanibel Causeway, heavily damaged by Ian, and the only road onto a barrier island. But researchers say the focus should be on building more resilient infrastructure for a changing climate.

Aerial photo of the damaged Sanibel Causeway that connects Fort Myers to the island community seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
(Joe Cavaretta/TNS)
There’s only one road that goes to Sanibel Island — and that’s part of its appeal.

The island, a 17.5-mile-long swoop of mangroves and sandy beaches off Florida’s west coast, is known today as a natural sanctuary, popular with birdwatchers, shell-collectors and northerners of every stripe looking for a warm place to spend a vacation. It has maintained that identity through decades of conservation efforts, starting with the creation of the 5,000-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in 1945, and through strict limits on development.

Zoning rules limit new buildings to no more than three stories — no higher than the tallest tree, according to some local lore — and the city of Sanibel’s comprehensive plan is built around “the importance of scenic resources in the preservation of the character of the community.” But its economy is still reliant on an influx of people, with more than a million visitors arriving between June and September in a typical year.

Sanibel and other barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico were devastated when Hurricane Ian swept into Florida last month. Local residents have begun to sift through the damage and consider how to rebuild, or whether to rebuild at all. Meanwhile, contractors are working overtime to restore the island’s sole link to the mainland, where several sections of the three-mile-long Sanibel Causeway were washed away during the hurricane.

The state says the emergency repairs will restore temporary access to the road by the end of October, and also provide a basis for permanent repairs. But it hasn’t said whether the causeway will be redesigned to withstand future storms, which climate scientists expect to become both more frequent and more intense in the coming decades. And given that American cities and states tend to make climate adaptations either in the wake of disasters or not at all, that’s an important question to consider.

How Quickly to Rebuild?

Ian hit Sanibel as a Category 4 storm, but it was the 15 feet of storm surge that created problems for the causeway, which is built in three spans, with two artificial islands supporting it in the water. Aerial photographs show extensive damage at the approach to the causeway and on one of the islands where the spans are linked.

After the storm, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said restoring access to barrier islands like Sanibel was a priority for the emergency response. According to Jessica Ottaviano, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the state has hired two contractors to make emergency repairs to the causeway. Most of the work involves “restoring the roadway and land that led up to bridge structures as they were completely washed away,” Ottaviano says.

Sarah Matin, a Central Florida-based engineer and chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ public policy and practice committee, says FDOT records show the causeway’s three spans were last assessed in November 2021, and “rated well above the necessary numbers” on the health index and sufficiency rating — two measures of a bridge’s overall condition.

“It was in good shape, but storm surge is a terrible event,” Matin says. “We always say in the engineering world, you can hide from wind but you have to run from water.”

Since Ian, the state has assessed the parts of the bridge that weren’t damaged in the storm and found them to be structurally sound, according to Ottaviano. She didn’t respond to a question about whether the state was considering any changes to the bridge’s design in anticipation of future storms. But how the state carries out its recovery could have long-lasting consequences for its resilience to climate change. It’s learned those lessons before, including after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which spurred sweeping changes to the state’s building codes to make structures more resistant to winds.

“After disasters there’s often a tension between building back quickly and building back well,” says Elizabeth Albright, an assistant professor of the practice of environmental science and policy methods at Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment.

Albright, who studies how governments respond to climate disasters, grew up in Indiana and spent yearly vacations in Sanibel Island as a child, and says her “heart breaks for everyone on the island.” Most of the recovery funds are likely to come from federal sources, she says, and in many ways, states have incentives to quickly rebuild roads and bridges to their former standards, rather than reimagining them in light of new information about climate threats.

“[The causeway] is not that old, and I don’t know what specs it was built to, but I would hope at minimum that they would think through what improving the bridge would look like, and what are the current risks,” Albright says.

Exclusive Places, Public Roads

The 7,000 permanent residents of Sanibel Island tend to be wealthier than Floridians as a whole, with a $90,000 per-capita income, which is more than double that of the state and the Ft. Myers metro area. The average home value is $700,000, more than triple the statewide average. And some 97 percent of Sanibel residents are white, compared to just 53 percent statewide.

That makes it a fairly exclusive place, with many well-off residents who can decide how much risk they want to take on when they buy property. But it’s the broader public — for the most part, the federal government — that will be paying to restore the road infrastructure that makes Sanibel accessible. That’s a dynamic that will become more common as the climate changes and sea levels rise, says Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist with the Florida Sea Grant College Program.

Ruppert has spent years studying the legal and social consequences of sea-level rise, often focusing on a court case in Summer Haven, Fla., south of Jacksonville on the opposite side of the state from Sanibel Island. Decades ago, St. Johns County took control of a portion of Old A1A, a former state road that runs along the Atlantic coast. The road is the only access point to a small group of beachfront homes.

The encroaching ocean has repeatedly washed the road away, but homeowners sued the county to keep up with the increasingly expensive task of maintaining the road. The case revolved around whether the county had an obligation to continually rebuild the road or pay residents for their properties if they could no longer access them. While the case was ultimately settled, it’s an example of the types of tough situations that local governments and property owners will find themselves in as coastal communities become more vulnerable.

“Local governments are not allowed by law to walk away from infrastructure they own,” Ruppert says. “If you abandon a road and that eliminates reasonable access to property, there’s a very good chance you’re going to have to pay the property owner.”

Many barrier islands are popular resort destinations, including most of the Jersey Shore, which is increasingly subject to sea-level rise, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where properties — and roads — are regularly damaged in floods. Residents of those places face gut-wrenching choices after hurricanes and other disasters. Governments will face increasingly tough choices too as they work to maintain public infrastructure in those places.

“Private parties can go in, purchase properties in hazardous areas that are dependent on infrastructure that is subject to natural forces, and then turn around and demand that taxpayers pay tremendous amounts of money to subsidize their decision to go there,” Ruppert says. “It’s kind of this mismatch between the incentives of the property owner and the local governments and taxpayers.”

Adaptation Through Disaster

During Hurricane Katrina, a long section of bridge on Interstate 10 over Lake Pontchartrain was damaged when the storm surge lifted sections of road off their supports. Authorities initially made emergency repairs to the bridge’s twin spans. But eventually they redesigned and rebuilt the bridge — lifting it more than 20 feet higher than the original structure had been.

It remains to be seen what adaptations, if any, will be incorporated into the repair of Sanibel Causeway. Congress is likely to approve a package of hurricane relief funds, but hasn’t voted on a bill yet. The Lee County DOT says that FDOT has taken control of the whole causeway project, and FDOT has not said whether it believes design changes are necessary for the bridge. The city of Sanibel’s mayor and members of the City Council couldn’t be reached for interviews.
Damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the IH-10 bridge to Slidell from New Orleans, Louisiana.
The aftermath of a disaster is often the worst time to think about long-term planning, because people are suffering and grieving and working to restore normalcy. But it’s often a time when extra funding is made available for critical infrastructure projects.

“I hope that we stop the cycle of waiting for the damage to think through how we’re going to improve our existing infrastructure,” says Jamie Padgett, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “That needs to be a continual, ongoing process.”

Lawmakers have worked to incentivize resilience upgrades to infrastructure during “normal” times. New programs in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provide funding for resilient transportation projects, for example. But disaster itself is increasingly normal. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), climate-related damages to roads could cost up to $20 billion a year by the end of the century.

The GAO last year made a series of recommendations for how federal agencies could promote more resilient infrastructure, including making changes to how the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency funds are distributed. Some of its recommendations have been implemented, and others have not, says Alfredo Gomez, director of the GAO’s natural resources and environment team.

There are pros and cons to every approach, Gomez says. Adding new resilience-related requirements to certain funding programs could make it harder for certain communities to apply for grants, for example. But it’s important that public investments in infrastructure are as forward-looking as possible, he says. “If we’re going to spend billions of dollars, we need to make sure that at the end of the day we are building things to be more resilient and not rebuilding them in the same way.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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