Wastin’ Away: Florida Keys’ Great Displacement Begins

February 21, 2023

Business Insider:

The term “climate migration” is an attempt to explain why people leave one place in favor of another; it assigns motivation to movements that may be voluntary or involuntary, temporary or permanent. Yet even if the primary cause for migration is clear, there are still countless other factors that influence when, where, and how someone moves in response to a disaster. It’s this messiness that is reflected in the word “displacement”: the migratory shifts caused by climate change are as chaotic as the weather events that cause them.

For some families the decision to depart the Keys was easy. The storm was a traumatic event, more than enough to convince many people that life on the islands was too dangerous to accept. They came back home, fixed up their houses, and got out. That was the case for Connie and Glenn Faast, who left the island city of Marathon for the mountains of North Carolina after spending almost 50 years in the Keys. “It was pretty much immediate,” Connie told me. “It’s just too hard to start over when you get older. We couldn’t risk it.”

The Faasts had lived the kind of life you can only live in the Keys: Connie worked on commercial fishing boats and in a local aquarium, while Glenn owned a boat maintenance company and raced Jet Skis in his spare time. They had stuck it out in the Keys through several major storms, including 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, which brought five feet of water to their little island and totaled three of their cars; Connie still shudders when she remembers the image of her husband wading through the water around their house with snakes climbing all over him, clinging to him for shelter from the flood. The Faasts had second thoughts after that storm, but the Keys were paradise, and besides, they didn’t know where else they would go.

When Irma came 12 years later, though, the choice was much easier. During the evacuation, it took the Faasts a week to find a decaying hotel in Orlando where they could wait out the storm. As the hurricane passed over the center of the state, it knocked out their power, leaving them and their pets to spend the night in 100-degree heat without air conditioning. “That was it for us,” she said. They had to get out — not just out of the Keys, but out of Florida altogether.

When they returned to Marathon, they discovered that their home was the only one in the neighborhood with an intact roof. They put the house on the market as soon as they could, but it took a year for the place to sell, in part because property values had risen so steeply that most people in the area couldn’t afford to buy.

The storm had scared many people off, but it had also destroyed a quarter of the Keys’s housing stock, which drove up prices for the homes that survived. In the meantime, the Faasts saw their friends start to leave as well: one moved to Sarasota, another to Orlando, and a third friend, who had been the first-ever mayor of Marathon, talked about moving to central Florida.

“We thought it would be devastating when we left,” Connie said, “because we love the Keys. But when we pulled out of there, we were so, so relieved.”

Hundreds of people like the Faasts left the Keys of their own volition in the years after Irma, deciding one way or another that the risks of staying there outweighed the benefits. But perhaps the more turbulent phenomenon after the storm was the involuntary displacement caused by the shortage of affordable housing on the islands. The storm destroyed not only the massive mobile home parks on islands like Big Pine, but also hundreds of so-called downstairs enclosures, small apartment-style units that sat beneath elevated homes. 

It also wiped out dozens if not hundreds of liveaboard boats and older apartment complexes in island cities like Marathon. These trailer parks and apartment complexes had been havens for resort waiters, boat buffers, and bartenders, allowing them to get a foothold in an archipelago that had long ago become unaffordable for anyone who wasn’t rich. Now all that housing was gone, and FEMA’s 50% rule  — which prohibits improvements to structures that cost more than 50% of its market value — prohibited most trailers and downstairs enclosures from being rebuilt.

Many of those who had been lucky enough to own small homes or campers hadn’t been able to afford insurance, which meant they missed out on the payouts that went to wealthy homeowners and part-time vacationers. To make matters worse, the government of the Keys couldn’t build enough new homes to fill the gap created by the storm: the state had long ago imposed a de facto cap on the number of building permits Monroe county — which encompasses the islands — could issue, an attempt to make sure the population did not grow too large to evacuate the islands in a single day. Thus it was impossible for most residents either to rebuild their old homes or to buy new ones. 

Some of those who lost their homes were able to crash with friends and family, and others got by living in tents or trailers, but others resorted to a forest homeless encampment. The lack of housing made the storm survivors feel as though they were stuck in a permanent limbo: life on the islands became a game of musical chairs, in which only the highest bidders could end up with a seat.


3 Responses to “Wastin’ Away: Florida Keys’ Great Displacement Begins”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Are people still getting mortgages in the Keys?

  2. gmrmt Says:

    OK. A storm which is a common thing wipes out a quarter of the housing stock and prices for the remainder go UP? Real estate logic.

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