In the sea of destruction that is Mexico Beach, the Sand Palace stands out like an oasis. Hurricane Michael’s wind and waves pitched lesser domiciles off their moorings, tore roofs away, or simply obliterated them. But as numerous news outlets have observed, the stately white house at the end of 36th St. withstood the storm largely unscathed.
The New York Times broke the story of the house that was “supposed to be a fortress” according to Russell King, one of the owners. He, along with his uncle Lebron Lackey, had built Sand Palace to withstand the big one, in part because they accept the science of climate change and the risk of more intense hurricanes. But if their house is a monument to adaptation done right, it’s also a reminder of how unprepared we as a society are for the climate disasters of the future. And it’s a reminder adapting to climate change is not something we can do at the individual level alone.
CNN chronicled a few of the house’s beyond code qualities that include being built to withstand 240 mph winds (state building code is 120 mph), standing atop 40-foot concrete pilings to handle storm surge, and concrete walls and rebar as well as steel girders. All that, of course, comes with a price tag.
The architect who built the house estimated its fortress-like nature doubled the price of construction; Lackey told CNN it raised it 10-15 percent. However much Sand Palace cost to fortify, that’s money not everyone has.
Government, with its ability to regulate all manner of things from building codes to where toxic waste can be sited and contained, has a key role to play. It’s clear the climate is headed to a more unstable place even if we manage to cut emissions dramatically, yet adaptation remains chronically underfunded. And a number of efforts to adapt to climate shocks are barely suitable for today’s climate, let alone those that awaits us.
Our current government (at the federal level at least) is actively failing on both climate mitigation and adaptation. At a time when more stringent regulations are needed, the Trump administration is rolling back as many as possible. Its efforts will destabilize the climate further, making the adaptation hill that much steeper to climb.
Florida’s Republican leaders haven’t been much better. Governor (and Senate candidate) Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio have peddled climate denial for years. Scott’s administration infamously banned the very words “climate change” despite the threat sea level rise poses for the state. Miami’s Republican mayor may be a climate leader, but the destruction in the Panhandle is a reminder it takes more than local leaders to do the heavy lift of adaptation.
Absent strong government leadership, the poorest will continue to suffer the most from climate change. This isn’t just true in Florida. It can be seen in California where private insurers prep high-value homes to withstand flames while their neighbors face it alone with dwindling public resources. Or on low lying islands, where resorts are building monuments to sea level rise while the poor are forced to leave their island homes due to the rising seas.
The scene in Mexico Beach is a microcosm of these issues. What King and Lackey built is amazing, but it also reminds us that while people with means and the will to make climate adaptation investments will be able to eke out a few more years on the water, the rest are at risk of losing it all.