Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Smaller targets -- a Carbon Based original

    Mark Twain once said (in Pudd'nhead Wilson), "Put all your eggs in one basket and -- WATCH THAT BASKET." Unfortunately for us, we've put a great many eggs in one basket -- properties near the water. 

    Almost half the United States population lives within 50 miles of the sea  or in flood plains, and these growing settlements are regulated haphazardly, if at all. Perverse incentives for coastal and flood-plain property development abound, such as pro-growth policies, insurance availability and lavish reconstruction funds. 

    We would face growing disaster losses even if climate change didn't exist, and the demographic migration to the water just makes climate change impacts exponentially worse.

    Marcia McNutt, who recently announced her resignation as director of the US Geological Survey, told a scientific gathering one instance of what "worse" means. She reported that Superstorm Sandy had scoured away many dunes, leaving towns and cities dangerously bereft of natural defenses against future storms. " Sandy was a threshold for the northeast and we have already crossed it," McNutt told the National Council for Science and the Environment conference in Washington. "For the next storm, not even a super storm, even a run-of-the-mill nor'easter, the amount of breaches and the amount of coastal flooding will be widespread," she said.

    McNutt vocally doubted the possibilities for rebuilding coastal defenses, given the obsession with austerity that grips Washington.  Nobody is willing to invest in public works these days, whether restoring natural defenses such as dunes, or hardening the shoreline through sea walls and other manufactured barriers.

    But even if the funds for such a building program existed, would beefing up shore defenses make sense?  This is not the only response.  

    Charles Perrow points the way in his 2007 book, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial and Terrorist Disasters (published by Princeton).  He doesn't dispute the need to protect our assets from all kinds of threats and to cope with the aftermath of storms, quakes and terror attacks. We must do both. But he stresses a seldom-used alternative -- reducing the size of the target. 

    The target has been growing for a long time. The major reason Hurricane Sandy caused so much damage resulted from decades of unregulated (or barely regulated) development, from allowing unchecked building to continue in known vulnerable areas.  Today's toxic combination of home rule and easily influenced officials makes it hard for governments to resist the commercial forces behind development.  We are stuck in an endless loop of inundation and rebuilding.

    One of Perrow's themes is that proper governance can break this loop, reduce the size of the target and dramatically improve resilience.  We could ease into sane policies through a variety of small steps, such as zoning changes for vulnerable spots. 

    Some of these steps are commercial, such as more astutely designed insurance.  State or local governments could declare that once a property is flooded, it's no longer insurable without significant modifications, such as being rebuilt on stilts.  Some insurers might squawk, but on the whole property insurers are very aware of the risk and would accept some consistently enforced regulations to help change behavior.

    With nudges from local governments, banks could be persuaded to tighten the loan requirements for vulnerable properties, mandating construction to a higher and more flood-proof standard. They could even encourage such innovations as floating houses that are designed to raise and lower with the water level.

    Governments can also pursue buyouts for owners whose property is damaged. Many homeowners have sunk considerable funds into their vulnerable houses, and the chance of being made even partly whole may persuade some to allow their property to be condemned.  Most of them bought these parcels years before any talk of climate change and sea level rise were in the air.  Make them generous buy-outs. Part of good governance is to start thinking now about who should pay for coastal retreat, and how.

    Of course, it would be hard to imagine a more unpopular policy. Everybody loves to live near the water.  I would, too.  At every turn, coastal dwellers will fight a retreat from the coast.    But inland taxpayers should have a say in how to use recovery funds -- and many of us are dubious about paying for a rebuild of the same weak house on the same wet site.

    To shrink the target, governments must resist developers.  Maybe the federal government needs to step in, if only to represent taxpayers who object to money being spent foolishly.

    If we remove massive property concentrations from the coast, then coastal erosion is not much more than an inconvenience, certainly not a billion-dollar disaster.   From higher ground, we could take a much more relaxed approach to huge storms and floods.

    The alternative is the anguish of watching the basket with all our eggs sink under the waves.

South-facing Long Beach on Oak Island, NC, September 17, 1999 -- Hurricane Floyd brought a devastating 15 feet of storm surge that damaged or destroyed hundreds of houses along this community's ocean front, and flattened its frontal sand dunes. Here, elevation worked to save the house but pilings and framing from a local municiple pier ripped through the first floor and some of pilings of Mark (R) and Angela (L) Godfrey's beach home. Photo by DAVE GATLEY/ FEMA News Photo


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