Sunday, February 17, 2013

Trouble at the beach -- a Carbon Based original

    For years, coastal houses have taken a beating from waves and wind. Hurricane Sandy and winter storm Nemo are just the most recent vandals, but unnamed and less dramatic storms pound and destroy the beach no less efficiently. Water is lapping at the boardwalk.

    To intensify the punishment, federal bureaucrats at FEMA have redrawn the national flood maps, and now many coastal properties lie in flood zone one, a soggy label never attached to them before.  Insurance companies spurn premiums from these addresses, at least in the immediate aftermath of a big flood.  If a beach homeowner actually finds a policy, they balk at the exponential rise in premiums.

    In Asbury Park, New Jersey, residents blame the FEMA maps, which were released after Hurricane Sandy, for driving the middle class away from the shore.   Many people cannot afford the post-Sandy standards for rebuilding.  The new rules often call for raising beach houses two feet at a minimum.

    The New Jersey experience repeats itself up and down the coast.  Towns demand seawalls, armored boardwalks and other infrastructure to keep the beach idyll going another few years.

    For beach dwellers, the overall tone in these discussions oscillates between stubborn optimism and despair. Almost as a reflex, these people say, "Let's rebuild, we're not going to let this disaster get us down.  If we have to rebuild to higher standards, so be it.  Maybe it's even a good idea.  We can recover our money over time."  

    In candid moments, they admit they've heard of sea level rise. Uncertainty clouds all possible futures; they fear that they could raise the house, only to discover in a few years that the waves come even higher.  Mostly, though, they angrily reject the observation that these town-wrecking storms now happen every other year. 

    With mounting horror they realize that the comforting scenarios of selling the beach house at a handsome profit are beginning to sound implausible. Some of their neighbors cannot sell at any price. 

    Homeowners do not suffer alone. Insurers are in a bind, too.  Customers dispute the underwriters' assessment of the odds. Many clients will search online for a less responsible insurer who will underwrite the risk without even a glance  at climate change and potential coastal flooding.  That insurance company might even make money for a couple of years.  When the next damaging storm comes, they will collapse.  This isn't sustainable.

    One usually mute participant in this drama is the inland taxpayer. In the 1980s, an earlier taxpayer outcry largely halted the practice of replenishing beaches for wealthy seaside communities.   That kind of resentment will flare again when they rebel against paying for shoring up houses and improving infrastructure for someone else, which will soon -- once again -- suffer destruction by water. 

    Many of our fellow citizens have committed themselves to coastal living. For the sake of economic growth, beach towns artificially build up values in areas where floods will destroy the property.    Nor are they alone -- everyone who pays taxes that go to recovery funds after a storm has also made the investment. 

    We're now faced with a steep bill for blindly subsidizing these coastal risks for all these years. Finding the right solution will require a stretch from all of us -- homeowners, financial institutions, taxpayers and governments.

    Sooner or later the move away from the shore will gather momentum.  The worst way is all at once, through the "magic of the market," when a big storm scares away the financing to rebuild or improve infrastructure. Families will burn through savings, and then leave their waterlogged wrecks in ruined towns.

    The more orderly path is arduous, and requires that governments vigorously take the lead. For example, the most effective step costs dearly at first, but solves the problem one building at a time.  Governments buy vulnerable beach properties and condemn them. 

    Theoretically, a motivated government can compensate owners somewhat fairly, even if the upfront bill looks frightening.  But the prospects for a justly administered program in the United States look dim.  The wealthy have the clout to make sure that governments, whether state or federal, buy them out at top dollar. Working class homeowners will be stuck with stingier deals, or no offer at all.

    A managed retreat demands enough solidarity to spread the pain around fairly.  A possible role model has already emerged in parts of Australia, where many town councils block coastal development and condemn damaged buildings. Developers push back, although many grudgingly acknowledge that their long-term interest demands working closely with towns to avoid building in areas exposed to sea-level rise and catastrophic flooding. Of course, developers in Australia lack the overwhelming political muscle of their US counterparts.

    Governments must take other active steps, too.  They must upgrade coastal building codes, as New Jersey is doing now. They must devise sustainable ways to protect the buildings that remain after the buyouts.  They can also penalize banks and insurers for encouraging development in risky areas.  They must do their best to prevent short-sighted opportunism from delaying the retreat.

    This kind of active government involves more social engineering than any of the stakeholders usually like.  What's more, governments and others will probably make many mistakes in the orderly retreat from the shore.  But that doesn't change the goal -- to stay dry and safe by shepherding  people out of danger.

    As is usual with anything connected with climate change, the sooner we act wisely, the better. The price tag goes up the longer we dither.

Aerial views during an Army search and rescue mission show damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, Oct. 30, 2012. US Air Force photo

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