A small coastal Mississippi town is seeing dramatic property value losses from flooding. But the houses in highest demand are still right on the water.
Ankle-deep in the overflow of the river that drew her here two decades ago, Calinda Crowe looked across her land, envisioning the future. She didn’t like what she saw.
“You wake up to this,” she said, gesturing toward the water submerging everything but the concrete foundation of her raised home. “It upsets you, you know, because it's supposed to be ‘dream home’ type stuff. Not with this.” A turtle floated to the surface near the bulkhead dividing her yard from the bayou.
Crowe bought her home near Mississippi’s Pearl River 17 years ago because of its proximity to the wilderness and its stunning views. With no buildings bordering her to the north, the wetlands and the river feel like extensions of her property.
But she says if she knew then what she knows now, she wouldn’t have bought it. She understood the risks of hurricanes and storm-driven flooding, but she didn’t anticipate the persistent inundation of water that even a stray breeze off the Gulf of Mexico can bring.
Unfortunately, her home has gotten harder to sell. Crowe lives in a region of southwestern Mississippi that includes Bay St. Louis, which has experienced one of the most dramatic losses of flood-impacted real estate value in the United States, according to an analysis by Nexus Media in collaboration with CityLab. The city, population 13,000, lost out on more than $122 million in real estate appreciation due to the impacts of flooding. While that’s a smaller total than coastal areas like Jacksonville, Florida; or Charleston, South Carolina; the losses in Bay St. Louis likely hurt more in relative financial terms, because the median home value in Bay St. Louis is just $136,700.
News coverage of coastal real estate damage has tended to focus on high-dollar losses, often near big cities. To explore the nuances of property values and coastal flooding, Nexus Media News created a tool that identifies where people have felt the effect of flooding most acutely based on research by First Street Foundation. The tool shows the ratio of flood-related losses to median home value in each of the areas studied. It describes that places have taken the biggest hit relative to the value of their homes.
Some of the highest relative losses are in smaller communities with less-famous coastal zip codes. One reason for this dynamic is that areas with smaller housing inventories may find it harder to attract developers to invest in new construction when flooding effects make it hard to predict future values. Another reason is that flooding insurance costs for more modest homeowners represent a great share of their annual housing budget, which would make them more likely to buy homes outside the flood-prone areas.
In all, research by First Street Foundation found that between 2005 and 2017, flooding erased nearly $16 billion of real estate appreciation in coastal areas from Maine to Texas. Put another way, were it not for flooding, coastal properties would be worth $16 billion more. (Researchers did not calculate losses in Louisiana due to the complexity of the coastal plain and the high degree of coastal engineering in the state.)
But a closer investigation of Bay St. Louis shows that not all properties are losing value equally.
Ironically, in a place under constant threat from the water, it is the properties right on the water in that seem to be in the highest demand—obscuring the larger reality about struggling properties in the area.
Jason Chiniche, an engineer who helps homeowners navigate the complexities of building in an extreme flood zone, said he wouldn’t have predicted the demand, given the flood risks.
“You would think it would be a detraction, but this area is the fastest-growing area in Hancock County,” he said. “Probably along the whole Coast [of Mississippi].” He said new homes overlooking the water can go for $400,000 or more—several times the average in this area.
Amy Wood, a realtor who’s been selling homes in coastal Mississippi for decades, said she has been pleasantly surprised by the sustained demand. She said buyers are even plunking down deposits as hurricanes form in the Atlantic.
“Years ago, you would never sell a house during hurricane season, and now it seems like people don't care,” she said.
It’s not that people don’t care, but rather they have enough confidence in the strict building codes and government-backed insurance policies that the risks posed by mother nature seem manageable. Buyers are willing to put up with persistent flooding if they can purchase a home with a view of the water.
When asked if climate change or sea level rise ever comes up in her conversations with homebuyers, Wood said, “No, not really. Not in my world. It hasn't come up with any of my clients.” Climate change is making hurricanes more intense, increasing the odds of more high-velocity storms in years to come.
After Katrina laid waste to much of the Gulf Coast, Bay St. Louis’s future was at first uncertain. But then came an explosion of construction projects backed by taxpayer-supported insurance policies. The guarantee of insurance has given banks, mortgage companies, and homeowners reason to build in a region that is exquisitely vulnerable to flooding. The building boom has coincided with a revitalization of the downtown area of Bay St. Louis, which now bills itself as a more laid-back version of New Orleans. A line of lively bars and restaurants overlook a waterfront promenade built upon a massive, post-Katrina storm surge barrier. Each year the city hosts its own Mardi Gras parade and advertising campaigns feature music invoking the soundtrack of the Crescent City.
“I think now we've been long enough that people are now moving back closer to the water,” she said, adding that the mayor likes to say that water got the city into a mess during Hurricane Katrina, but that water will rescue the city now, as people are drawn to the beach.
This corner of Hancock County has been spared another major hurricane to date, but persistent flooding is still a problem. Janyne Crapeau, owner of the Turtle Landing Bar and Grill, said her property is frequently inundated. The constant flooding means lost revenue.
“A lot of times when the parking lot is [flooded] people that were planning on coming here just keep on going. We're on a scenic highway. They don't want to pull into a muddy parking lot,” she said.
She has put the business up for sale. Crapeau says the bar has a loyal customer base that a new owner could inherit, but she warns potential buyers that frequent flooding comes with the territory. She doesn’t think she will be able to sell to someone in the area..
“A lot of people are just selling out and getting out,” she said. “They don't want to have to put up with [the flooding] anymore.”
Tim Blackwell is among those who opted to leave. He said his former insurance company declined to pay for repairs needed after the last flood they endured. The company then discontinued their policy. That’s when Blackwell and his wife decided to move.
“I contacted a real estate agent, and he said, ‘Nobody's going to buy this,’” Blackwell said. He said that since the tax bill for the year was more than the property was worth, he and his wife had little choice but to walk away.
“Out of pocket, we probably lost half a million dollars, with what we paid for the house and the property and the improvements and all the things we did,” he said. “We got nothing.” He said the whole affair was heartbreaking.
“We really liked it. We were going to be here until we died,” he said. “I had plans to be buried nearby.”
Blackwell isn’t the only one feeling the pain. Jeremy Porter, a data consultant for First Street Foundation, said that while frequent flooding costs homeowners, they’re not the only ones who pay a price.
“Everybody experiences [flooding] one way or the other, whether it's disrupted commutes, closed roads, closed schools, whatever it might be, it ends up impacting the entire community.”
Calinda Crowe said that, for now, she will live with regular flooding because, despite the nightmares, there are days when hers is still a dream home.
“I love it. Love it,” she said, looking at the receding waters. “Wish it was different. What do you do?”
This work is supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists funded by Microsoft News.