- The Sunbelt’s Sandy FoundationCoastal Development and the Making of the Modern South
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“And everyone that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”—Matthew 7:26–27
In October 2005, less than two months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast and as hundreds of thousands of Mississippians remained homeless, the Mississippi state legislature assembled a special session. At the urging of Harrah’s Entertainment and other major players in the gaming industry, the state rushed through legislation that permitted the construction of inland mega-resorts, deemed of critical importance for the state’s recovery. The move was an indicator of what Mississippi would prioritize over the next decade. While efforts to aid displaced low-income homeowners languished, federal and state assistance for the multi-billion dollar casino industry continued to flow. In 2008, the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a plan by state officials to divert $600 million in emergency federal aid for low-income housing to support Gulfport’s growing casino and cruise ship industries. (Congress had already lowered the required amount of $5 billion in federal aid devoted to low- and moderate-income housing from 70 to 50 percent.) Thus, the Gulf coast’s casinos have roared back with a vengeance, while low-income coastal residents still struggle to rebuild their lives and find a place in a new coastal economy.1
Similar stories of destruction, displacement, and transformation are written along the shorelines of today’s American South, as are signs of the damaging, ironic, and (for future generations) catastrophic results of mid-twentieth-century Americans’ rush to the seashore, and their insatiable desire to contain it. Over the second half of the twentieth century, an army of engineers, developers, and promoters turned fragile ribbons of sand into real estate, and formerly remote, desolate, and sparsely populated shores into vibrant leisure and tourism economies.
This recent trend has important implications for the future. Conservative estimates foresee sea levels rising anywhere from twenty to eighty inches over the next century. Today, nearly 5 million Americans live in 2.6 million homes located at less than four feet above high tide. Many portions of the coast most vulnerable to rising seas are located in the South, as are most of the nation’s fastest growing coastal counties. While many Americans struggle to make mortgage payments on homes that are figuratively “underwater,” at the close of the twenty-first century we can expect to see entire coastal communities (and with them, coastal economies) literally drowned.2
A threat to human civilization, global climate change promises not merely to transform the nature of geopolitics in the twenty-first century, but along with it, our sense of the past. While policymakers scramble to mitigate the cataclysmic [End Page 25] effects of rising sea levels, historians work to unravel the tangled knot of public policies and social and cultural changes that led to the concentration of so many American people—and the investment of so much American capital—so dangerously close to the sea. To date, however, the overdevelopment of the South’s coastlines is matched by the underdevelopment of its study. As future generations are forced to come to terms with the effects of climate change, the rampant development and environmental engineering of coastlines, and the reckless and unsustainable exploitation of precious water resources will, in all likelihood, come to occupy a place alongside racial moderation, economic modernization, and political realignment as one of the most important developments in the South over the past fifty...