Building to Last: Why We Stay

Living on the coast inspires devotion in the face of danger.  Are the risks worth the rewards? We think so.
By Ben Brown

Fran and Bill Marscher, who grew up on the South Carolina coast and co-wrote Living in the Danger Zone: Realities About Hurricanes, want you to know there’s no such thing as risk-free living on the shore. Their book catalogs the tragedies and puts numbers to the names: Donna, Betsy, Camille, Hugo, Andrew, Floyd. Between 1990 and 2003 alone, the Marschers report, annual U.S. losses from hurricanes have averaged some $9 billion.

All that destruction, yet we still long to be in these places, places that sooner or later will be in the paths of forces beyond our control. In fact, we pay an ever-increasing premium for the privilege. How “peculiar ... puzzling ... almost bizarre,” write the Marschers. Yet their own waterfront paradise on Hilton Head Island invites the same hazards. “I would have a hard time living anywhere else,” says Fran. “Even when the wind is up, it’s delightful.”

In Southern California, where beach dwellers face the quadruple threat of tsunamis, mudslides, earthquakes, and fires, the environment seems to inspire a kind of romantic fatalism. “It’s a little insane,” admits Lewin Wertheimer, an architect living in Venice, a few blocks from the Pacific. “Bottom line, life’s a risk. You can look for a place with less risk. But it may not be somewhere you want to live.”

Barbara Savage’s family is rebuilding a Virginia Beach home destroyed by fires that were fanned, she says, by “the well-known coastal wind. We always thought a hurricane, not fire, would cause our coastal home’s demise. But we never doubted the idea of rebuilding.”

Why go through the effort just to chance it all again? “It’s the long view,” says Barbara. “It’s about people- and dog-watching. It’s seeing the joyful play of little ones their first time at the beach. But mostly it’s about sharing this huge experience with the people I love.”

In Florida, transplanted New Yorker Laine Wilder feels the same about her spot on Grant Farm Island. A sliver of a barrier island separates Grant Farm from the Atlantic Ocean east of Orlando. Last fall, Laine’s family had to evacuate twice—to Tampa, in advance of Frances, and during Jeanne to their mainland house in the same area as their waterfront home. “We should have done it the other way around,” says Laine, because Jeanne nearly did them in.

Huddled in the mainland house, as Jeanne’s winds separated the roof from its rafters, “we sat with our backs against the door and prayed for eight hours,” Laine remembers. “It was a life-changing experience.”

And, she adds, “This is our home. There’s no going back to New York, no going anywhere else. I love the [water]. It’s where I feel my deepest connection,” she says. “When you find what home is to you, you stay. You learn how to be safe. But you stay.”

Learning to be safe is the key, agrees Fran Marscher: “It’s mostly about getting your head straight. If you’re not prepared, you can lose everything. You can lose your life.” That means siting homes intelligently, and building and remodeling with the expectation that high winds and storm surges are likely. “You must understand that storms will come,” says Fran. “If you need to evacuate, evacuate.”

No argument there, says Laine. “When the next hurricane comes, we’re going to London.”