The Gulf Shores: The Lodge and The Living With Hurricanes

In our final travel blog entry from the Gulf Shores, I wanted to discuss our hotel: The Lodge at Gulf Shores. There are a great variety of hotels and rental properties the area. However, the Lodge is one of the most interesting properties that you can choose. The $140 million, 350-room Hilton Hotel was built with money from the BP settlement after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which devastated the area. It was the first hotel to receive a “Cat 5” designation, built to withstand a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 160 mph and the accompanying storm surge. It is a unique design with restored dunes and other ecological elements right on the beach in the park area.

Much of the dunes and the prior hotel were wiped away by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. That was a Cat 3 with 120 mph winds and much of the old lodge laid in ruins and was used as an artificial reef in 2007.

Shortly before our visit, the area was hit by Hurricane Sally and suffered no damage.

Alabama has actually led the nation in requiring new hurricane-ready, fortified structures. Of the 10,000 fortified structures designated in the U.S., approximately 7,000 are in Alabama.
The state found that such designs (particularly in securing the roofs) does not add much to the cost of structures. It simply took a bit of reimagining and government/corporate coordination. Advocates for reform pointed to a prior hurricane where a single house in a residential area was designed for hurricanes and, when a hurricane passed through, it was literally the only home left standing. Just securing the roof can radically reduce the chances of a catastrophic loss of the home.
The power of these storms is obvious by just looking out the back of the hotel. The pier has a portion that is cut off at the very end. That was the result of bizarre anniversary. The reconstructed pier was repaired after Ivan and reopened on the exact anniversary of the hurricane after elaborate improvements. The ribbon cutting was held at 10 am and then Hurricane Sally hit and destroyed part of the pier — leaving the very end (with a new elevator and other improvements) cut off.  It was exactly 16 years after Hurricane Ivan to the day.
You can still go on the longer portion of the pier where fishermen gather.  We watched shark and sea turtles from the pier.

A before-and-after view of the pier:

However, the Lodge and the restored dunes did their jobs and withstood the rains and storm surge with Hurricane Sally. Indeed, the Lodge housed people and guests for days and served as a source for free hot meals for emergency crews and others in the cleanup.
The hotel complex is certified as “fortified bronze,” which means that its roof is attached to a fortified structure. The designers moved the hotel back on the beach (as opposed to many of the hotels and apartment buildings in the area). This allowed the restoration of the dunes and protected the structure from storm surges. They drove almost 200 piles deep into the sand. This required a lot of water but the designers used the water drained from the site by storing it in tanks. The result is that they did not use any water for the construction from the local water supply.

The area around the hotel is not your typical Hilton property with manicured lawns. They restored the traditional beach and natural dune vegetation. The hotel also has a nature center and programs on the environmental and ecological elements of the area.  All of the wood and art in the hotel are from Alabama.

One cool feature (literally) is the HVAC system. The hotel wanted to use the sea air throughout the hotel but this is a very humid location.  The system therefore pulls the moisture out of the air and then transfers that water to fill and maintain the swimming pool.  Guests often want to leave their doors open to go to sleep to the sound of the surf. However, they also want their AC running which is a terrible waste for the environment. Accordingly, the system has sensors to shut off if the balcony door is left open.

I was shown around the property by Chandra Wright, the Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives. Chandra is a lawyer who graduated from the University of Alabama and practiced law before joining the Lodge. She is not only highly knowledgeable but deeply committed to the environmental mission of the property.

While the hotel is a bit pricey, the money helps support other parks. Alabama parks are not supported by general revenue. They rely on the revenue of these parks and properties.

The plan of sustainable tourism is now a model for the state and National Geographic has listed the Eagle Cottages as some of the most unique lodges in the world for their protection of natural and cultural heritage.

The hotel monitors and maintains the dunes. It also dims lights at night to protect the sea turtles. (Baby sea turtles can die if they mistake lights for the moon and head in the wrong direction). Visitors are given stickers to put over their phone lights at night as dimmers and the pier uses “turtle lights” at night.

The dune restoration was quite elaborate. Each hurricane has been wiping out the dunes. They sought to increase protection with an engineered berm installed near the primary dune to prevent wind-borne movement of sand. There are three elements: A cut to allow and direct sand movement; a “sand plug” to protect against storm surges; and the placement of recycled Christmas trees to capture wind borne sand. This system allows for natural dunes to build up over time and the progress is evident with new vegetation throughout the area.

The Lodge also used solar panels designed to allow 100% of energy to be consumed and used on site.  As noted earlier, it is also designed to recycle and be self-reliant for water consumptions.  The heart of the water conservation effort is a 11,000 gallon tank on the property that stores and reuses water.

In all, it is very impressive and shows what can be done in sustainable tourism. This hotel has unique features of conservation but it is also a fully functioning hotel with all of the usual amenities from pools to workout rooms to restaurants. It is a strikingly beautiful location and speaks of the power of this natural system, including the regular hurricanes off of the Gulf.

I loved the stay at the Lodge and felt that we only scratched the surface of the Gulf Shore with our short visit. However, that gives us an excuse to come back to the jewel of Alabama.

10 thoughts on “The Gulf Shores: The Lodge and The Living With Hurricanes”

  1. Jonathan: The Hilton spent a lot of money to build the Lodge at Gulf Shores. That probably explains why, as you say, room rates are a “bit pricey”–a hefty $679 per night. But I suppose you got your rooms free–courtesy of your friends at the Electric Cities of Alabama conference where you gave the keynote address. As you mention, Alabama’s state parks are not supported by general revenues. In 2015 the state’s GOP legislature threatened to close all the state parks because of a fiscal crisis. So the state parks have had to mostly rely on “user” fees–and there are a lot of them for almost everything. Alabama has a perpetual fiscal crisis. The state ranks 50th in the US in per capita state and local property tax collection. But Alabama wears its low tax status as a badge of honor. Because of its low tax rates the burden falls hardest on low-income Alabamians–particularly poor Blacks. In Alabama a part-time Black hotel worker pays the same tax rate as as a white CEO! So to make up for the short fall in revenue the Alabama legislation has imposed one the country’s highest sale and “sin” taxes–taxes on groceries and even medications!

    The Gulf Shores have been susceptible to devastation by more intense hurricanes caused by global warming. The EPA estimates that as global warming intensifies sea levels along Alabama’s gulf coast will rise 18 inches to 4 feet in the next century. 27,000 residents along the coast are at risk. Dauphin Island, just 25 miles from Fort Morgan is already being threatened.by sea-level rise, hurricanes and erosion. The small island is slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. But Alabama has done next to nothing to plan for its future risk of a 100-year coastal flood, and ranks at the bottom in state efforts to form adaptive strategies. Apparently of little concern to you because you are more interested in military history. While Hilton’s Lodge may survive the next CAT-5 the state parks, other businesses and residents of the Gulf Shores will probably not be as lucky because they can’t afford the investments required to survive the next catastrophic hurricane.

    I think you live in a bubble of “white privilege” You get to enjoy the beaches, parks and watering holes along the Gulf Coast without any concern for the the economic realities that prevent Black people in Alabama from enjoying the same privileges. So hold onto your photos of the Gulf Shore. Show them to your grand children.. They will probably point out that in several columns you described in detail the beauty of the Gulf Shores but did not mention the threats to the area from global warming and nothing about systemic racism and economic inequality that still pervades Alabama. That’s why you need to take a course in advanced CRT. before it’s too late!

    1. You’re real popular at parties aren’t you, the way you take any conversation and turn it into an evil White people screed.
      Best to rid yourself of all things ever created by White people, lest you be seen as in league with us. The apex of privilege is to denounce the very “privileges” you use. I’d wish you good luck, but that itself, in your little twisted way of thinking, is no doubt ‘white privilege.’

      1. Anonymous: If your question is directed at me the answer is “yes”. But I “woke” many years ago. I was born and grew up in a “cocoon” of white privilege. I lived in an exclusive white neighborhood where all my playmates and school friends were white. We did have a Black housekeeper who came in once a week to clean the house and help my mother shop for groceries. She was a wonderful lady who acted as my surrogate “mother” when my mother went to club meetings. When our housekeeper died ( I was in my late twenties) my mother and I went to the “wake” at the housekeeper’s home to pay our respects, where her many children and other family members and friends were present. We were the only white people there. Although we were treated respectively I got the distinct impression they would have preferred we had not come. It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me why. When my parents sold the family home I grew up in I discovered the deed had a restrictive covenant that prevented selling to any Black person. So I know quite a bit about white privilege and still benefit it. But I have come to a willingness to acknowledge those privileges.

        I don’t believe all White people are “evil”. Polls indicate most Whites support the “Black Lives Matter” movement. They understand, especially after the murder of George Floyd, that systemic racism is still a major problem. On a positive note I see that young people are no longer burdened by White stereotypes of Black people. As a grandparent I see these changes in my three young granddaughters. Many of their friends are Black and other minorities. They often brought them over to visit, play in the creek and woods below our house and swim in the community pool–well at least before Covid made that impossible.

        My problem with Turley is that he refuses to “woke”–to acknowledge his own “white privilege”, the racism that shapes his world view and how he treats the subjects he chooses to address in his columns. He has attacked Antifa and black scholars. He reveres the slaveholder Madison. He mostly defends white conservatives. He has never criticized all the voter suppression laws being passed in states like Georgia, Alabama, Arizona and Texas, among others–the sole purpose of which is to make it harder for Black voters to exercise the ultimate “free speech” of our rights. He only complains when the “free speech” rights of white conservatives are “threatened”. His myopia regarding race was on full display when he described his vacation at Alabama’s Gulf Shores. No mention that it was slaves who built Fort Morgan or that Black Alabamians can’t afford to enjoy the amenities at the Hilton Lodge he enjoyed. So pardon me if I try to address the big gaps in Turley’s implicit racist views.

  2. I suppose you know that only a fraction of the Gulf Shore is in Alabama. Most of it is in Texas with the rest in Florida. Louisiana doesn’t have much beach because of the swamps. Mississippi has some shoreline. They call the Alabama shore the Redneck Riviera because it attracts mostly Southerners since Yankees pollute Florida.

  3. We have a cat in our neighborhood name Cat Five. He has five paws. One comes off the rear end.

  4. Thanks for the tour, JT. The beaches of Alabama and Mississippi are underappreciated destinations. My in-laws would spend winters in Biloxi. Those beaches are summer resorts and much cheaper in the winter, ala San Diego, where my family spends winters.

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