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To Rebuild or not to Rebuild: That is the Question

In early September, Hurricane Irma tore across the Caribbean Islands. The devastation inflicted by the category 5 storm, with winds traveling over 180 mph, left the island nation of Barbuda uninhabitable according to its Prime Minister. Ninety percent of all the island’s  infrastructure was destroyed. The damage has been estimated to total 300 million dollars. Additionally, Bermuda faces a projected ten foot rise in sea level over the next forty years. Given the current state of the island and the threat posed by climate change, the question arises, should Barbuda rebuild or should its population of 1,800 relocate?

The price of rebuilding after hurricanes continues to increase year after year. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma amassed a combined total of 150 billion dollars in damage. Hurricane Maria could cost Puerto Rico up to 95 billion dollars in damages, a price equivalent to its yearly economic output. Effectively, these three storms could cost up to 8 times as much as Superstorm Sandy, the costliest natural disaster to affect the United States prior to 2017. The price of rebuilding is exacerbated by climate change’s role in strengthening storms and adding to their ability for damage. Additionally, the upward economic trends US coastal cities are experiencing are driving an increase in population growth and property values that will also amplify the costs of restoration following coastal storms. As the price of living on the coast increases, the price of rebuilding the coast increases. To even further complicate the situation, by U.S. National Flood Insurance Program policy, one is required to rebuild on the land that they own, no matter how at risk they are of suffering another loss. While these policies are not universal, they ensure cataclysmic threats to the economy of the Western Atlantic.

Putting these economic matters aside, we must continue to examine the feasibility of rebuilding in locations especially prone to natural disasters and other phenomena aggravated by the effects of climate change from a rational perspective. Barbuda, a flat island only several feet above sea level, will not only be submerged by rising sea levels, but will continue to be ravaged by hurricanes that are strengthened and made more unpredictable by rising ocean temperatures. Though the choice to abandon this area may seem obvious, the leaders of the Caribbean islands are still steadfast on rebuilding their homes. While the island nation of Barbuda is still grappling with the details and costs of this decision, as many as seventeen communities in the U.S. have already abandoned hopes of rebuilding and undergone the process of relocation. Many Native communities on the Northwestern seaboard have been forced to relocate as their homes were submerged. Most notably, Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles relocated as a result of rising sea levels, stronger storms, and industrial manipulation of the island’s geography.

However, it is not just human communities that are facing the problem of relocation. Climate change’s effects on the animal kingdom have been disastrous, driving many species to extinction, a phenomenon that only adds to environmental destabilization. While not all species succumb to the drastic effects of climate change, many have been forced to readapt. The roseate spoonbill is an avian species based in the Florida Keys, another series of islands ravaged by Hurricane Irma. The species’ breeds in shallow waters which are ideal for feeding.

Due to the rise in sea levels, the species has been forced to relocate to higher ground to survive. According to one study, many species relocate “to higher elevations at a median rate of 11.0 meters per decade, and to higher latitudes at a median rate of 16.9 kilometers per decade,” as a direct response to climate change.

We cannot equivocate the scope of our adaptability with animals not as technologically adept as ourselves. The question of rebuilding or relocating stems from the fact that, as humans, we have the technology to overcome environmental disadvantages. Additionally, if we are to adopt the mindset that climate change may not be permanent or irreversible, the option of rebuilding remains feasible. Two prime examples of human achievement over climate change occur in Rotterdam, Netherlands and Venice, Italy. Both cities are extremely prone to flooding. Yet, instead of relocation, the cities opted to use advanced technology such as dikes, dunes, seawalls and underwater barriers to protect against climate change-influenced flooding. Many more cities, such as Bangkok, London and New York City, have managed to preserve their cultural artifacts and way of living by implementing similar technological systems to protect against future damage. In this aspect, humans are truly only limited by the extents of their resources and technological innovation.

Sentimental values play a large part in driving the cause for rebuilding. After the hurricane season of 2017, the residents of Houston, southern Florida, and the Caribbean immediately called for aid in reclaiming their destroyed homes. Human resilience, sophistication, and determination grants us the ability to hold these ideas of home and community in a sentimental and idealistic frame as opposed to the mere necessities for survival. When these aspects of human nature coupled with technological advances, the option to rebuild in locations highly threatened by natural disasters does not seem so farfetched. However, in order to properly gauge our ability to preserve our homeland, we must measure our sentiments in the context of both our capacity for physical preservation and the feasibility and permanence of these projects.


Chen, I-Ching, et al. “Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 19 Aug. 2011.

Disis, Jill. “Hurricane Maria Could Be a $95 Billion Storm for Puerto Rico.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 28 Sept. 2017.

Funes, Yessenia. “U.S. Native Coastal Communities Moving Due to Change Climate Change.” Colorlines, Colorlines, 10 May 2017.

Geiling, Natasha. “Climate Change Is Already Forcing U.S. Communities to Abandon Their Homes.” ThinkProgress, Word Press, 5 May 2017.

Irfan, Umair. “The Stunning Price Tags for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 18 Sept. 2017.

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Photo Courtesy of NOAA/CIR

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