Should U.S. pay to renew islands?

Scraped away by two storms since last year, the beach vanishes behind Carlyle Buelvas' home at high tide, when waves lick the dune a few feet from her back porch.

Buelvas has watched Georgia's largest public beach slowly weather away since 2000. Subtropical Storm Andrea in May 2007 and Tropical Storm Fay two weeks greatly accelerated the damage, even though the centers of both storms missed the island by at least 100 miles.

Fragile barrier islands from Texas to New England take a beating, especially during hurricane season. Their beachfronts wash away and gradually return with the tides. The shape of their sandy shores shifts over time but the islands survive, if left alone.

Yet authorities spend large sums to “fix” them by replenishing sand and other measures, mindful of their appeal to tourists and of the multimillion-dollar beachfront homes along their shores.

“I hear a lot of people say you'd have to be crazy or stupid to build on the oceanfront, and it's not crazy because people are making a lot of money doing it,” said Rob Young, a coastal development expert at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

“The crazy people are the federal taxpayers who are willing to subsidize that economy.”

Though Hurricane Gustav spared New Orleans the Katrina repeat that some had feared, some experts have renewed the debate over whether it was worth pumping billions of dollars into a city that could be ravaged again.

Young, director of WCU's Program for Study of Developed Shorelines, says a better case could be made that barrier islands aren't worth rebuilding. New Orleans, he argues, has more than 300,000 residents. The coastal islands are home mostly to retirees and investment properties.

Young points to Dauphin Island, Ala., where Hurricane Gustav washed away a new sand berm completed last year to replace the buffer destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The sand barrier, build to protect resort homes, cost $3.6 million, mostly from FEMA disaster funds.

It's the third time since Hurricane Georges in 1998 that Dauphin Island's manmade protective dunes have been wiped out by hurricanes.