SEA LEVELS continue to rise, coastal storms become more severe, and people still build homes in areas that are flood-prone and at high-risk for storm damage.
If that sounds like it doesn’t make sense, maybe that’s because it doesn’t. Why does the cycle of construction/destruction/reconstruction persist despite statistics and research that clearly indicate residential construction along the coast is a bad idea?
The short answer is that people like to live in coastal areas, though the rest of the story gets much more complicated from there. Of course, every aspect of the issue comes down to one thing: money.
Nothing brings the issue home better than when a major hurricane such as Dorian threatens to wreak havoc along the U.S. East Coast. At the same time, new light is being shed on coastal development, thanks to a report co-produced by Climate Central, an independent national organization dedicated to researching and reporting on the impact of climate change, and Zillow, the online real estate database company.
The report ranks Virginia seventh among the states with the most homes built within 10-year flood areas between 2010 and 2017. Twenty-one states have such exposure on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. In Virginia, 882 new houses were built during that seven-year period at a cost of $420 million.
The No. 1 state for coastal construction during the period was New Jersey, with 4,524 new homes built at a cost of $4.61 billion, most of that resulting from the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Compared with Virginia, roughly five times the number of new homes were built in New Jersey—but at 10 times the total cost.
Not only do these new and rebuilt homes remain in areas at risk of flooding and storm damage, the threat worsens and expands over time as sea levels continue to rise and storms grow more intense. Research suggests that efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change can slow the increasing rate of destruction, but not enough is yet being done to make a difference.
The report finds that the attraction and incentives for building in coastal areas continue to outweigh the risks and other deterrents. So the trend will likely continue until that balance shifts—once storm and flood damage is repeated enough to change people’s minds.
Moreover, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that across the United States, population growth in 100-year flood plain areas has actually outpaced growth elsewhere over the past 30 years by 1 or 2 percentage points.
One obvious way to combat this is to use the laws of economics. Certainly the cost of flood insurance can be a deterrent for some would-be property owners. Higher premiums will be necessary if the National Flood Insurance Program is to remain solvent. Communities can enact costly remediation measures, forcing builders, and in turn, buyers, to share in the cost of projects designed to protect homes from flood or storm surge damage.
But there is another edge to that sword. Seaside communities depend on the healthy real estate tax revenues these homes generate, especially because these are often top-dollar homes built on expensive land. It is not in these communities’ fiscal interest to deter home ownership with such add-on costs even if the mitigation efforts they would pay for, such as more extensive dunes and buffers, are worthwhile and necessary.
The answer to that is a program of federal or state subsidies to help local governments absorb the revenue losses they incur by discouraging development.
The Tidewater area of Virginia is sinking as sea level simultaneously rises, threatening homes, businesses and military installations in one of the most populous and economically important regions of the state.
According to the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at the College of William and Mary, Norfolk is incorporating sea-level rise mitigation standards into its comprehensive plan and then updating zoning regulations accordingly. Rather than deterring risky development, officials say they are encouraging safer development.
Disaster prevention—the disaster being the damage done by the storm rather than the storm itself—is a strategy that has halted the destruction/reconstruction cycle in the Netherlands, according to CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Mostly below sea level, the area known as Holland does not flood because of the technology that’s been implemented, from huge designated flood areas to massive movable walls.
The methods aren’t cheap, but they cost less than the damage done when a big storm hits a populated area—and you only have to build them once. When will the U.S. take to heart the rule that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?