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Rebuilding after hurricane invites disaster, says expert

It's time for taxpayers to stop rebuilding the homes, roads and sewers for people who live in dangerous places _ such as the beach. That message came Wednesday from the person in charge of Florida's growth and development plans, state Community Affairs Secretary Bill Sadowski, in Tampa to address the people who remain working when hurricanes roar through their communities.

The current response to hurricane disasters makes no sense, Sadowski said, since all it does is cram even more people into rebuilt beachfront communities, inviting even bigger, more expensive disasters when the next devastating storm strikes.

From his own boyhood in the Florida Keys to as recently as Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Sadowski said he's seen too many examples of public dollars financing ever-escalating beachfront development.

Instead, hurricanes should be used to remove people living in the areas most vulnerable to the death and destruction such a storm can bring to beachfront and other low-lying coastal areas. After the storm, state and local governments should be ready with new standards to lower population densities, perhaps returning the land to public uses.

"I believe steps like these are needed to ensure that taxpayers' dollars aren't used simply to rebuild the same vulnerable homes, high-rises and other structures that may be destroyed by a hurricane so they may be destroyed again," Sadowski told more than 700 people attending this year's Governor's Hurricane Conference.

By the mid-1990s, he said, the state will be requiring coastal communities to adopt tactics to counter publicly financed reconstruction of roads, bridges, sewer lines for beachfront residents and real estate projects.

Sadowski said the endless cycle of building ever more expensive structures in a hurricane's wake was first made clear to him as a boy growing up on Key Biscayne, south of Miami, in the 1950s.

Some longtime residents there had survived the infamous 1935 hurricane by crawling into the rafters of a barn built on the island's highest point. They were astonished, then, when some 1950s developers purchased a point of beachfront land and built a subdivision on it.

"The developers started putting lots up for sale for $5,000 a lot. Nowadays, you could get one of those lots for a quarter-, half a million dollars and you'd probably be lucky.

"But the old-timers were just scratching their heads. They could not believe why anybody in their right mind would want to buy waterfront property because they knew, based on their experience, that what that means is you get wiped out from time to time."

The next time was 1963, when Hurricane Cleo destroyed the island's waterfront.

The latest example of state and local governments failing to address beachfront reconstruction came in 1989, with Hugo, Sadowski said.

A year before Hugo's devastating trip through South Carolina, the state's legislature had approved a comprehensive law that closely controlled what and where waterfront reconstruction could occur after a hurricane.

But after Hugo hit, beachfront landowners and developers sued, gutting the law. Large portions of it were then thrown out by the legislature last year.

Today, almost all of the 150 beachfront structures destroyed by Hugo have been rebuilt, Sadowski said, many of them larger than before.

"This was the result of post-disaster decisions, politics, very liberal interpretations (of the law) in conservative South Carolina," he said.

"I don't want that to happen in Florida. We should not permit that to happen in Florida."

Government officials now estimate that a storm the size of Hugo would wreak about $14-billion in damage on South Florida alone. By preparing now, state and local officials can "spare the state that post-disaster disaster that South Carolina experienced."