US coastal growth con­tin­ues de­spite lessons of past storms

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Jeff Donn

Ris­ing sea lev­els and fierce storms have failed to stop re­lent­less pop­u­la­tion growth along U.S. coasts in re­cent years, a new Associated Press anal­y­sis shows. The lat­est pun­ish­ing hur­ri­canes scored bull’s-eyes on two of the coun­try’s fastest grow­ing re­gions: coastal Texas around Hous­ton and re­sort ar­eas of south­west Florida.

Noth­ing seems to curb Amer­ica’s ap­petite for life near the sea, es­pe­cially in the warmer cli­mates of the South. Coastal de­vel­op­ment de­stroys nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers such as is­lands and wet­lands, pro­motes ero­sion and flood­ing, and po­si­tions more build­ings and peo­ple in the path of fu­ture de­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers and pol­icy ad­vis­ers who study hur­ri­canes.

“His­tory gives us a les­son, but we don’t al­ways learn from it,” said Graham Tobin, a dis­as­ter re­searcher at the Univer­sity of South Florida in Tampa. That city took a glanc­ing hit from Hur­ri­cane Irma — one of the most in­tense U.S. hur­ri­canes in years — but suf­fered less flood­ing and dam­age than some other parts of the state.

In 2005, coastal com­mu­ni­ties took heed of more than 1,800 deaths and $108 bil­lion in dam­ages from Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, one of the worst dis­as­ters in U.S. his­tory. Images of New Or­leans un­der water elicited solemn res­o­lu­tions that such a thing should never hap­pen again — un­til Su­per­storm Sandy in­un­dated lower Man­hat­tan in 2012. Last year, Hur­ri­cane Matthew spread more deaths, flood­ing and black­outs across Florida, Ge­or­gia and the Caroli­nas. From 2010-2016, ma­jor hur­ri­canes and trop­i­cal storms are blamed for more than 280 deaths and $100 bil­lion in dam­ages, ac­cord­ing to data from the fed­eral Na­tional Cen­ters for En­vi­ron­men­tal In­for­ma­tion.

Har­vey, an­other his­tor­i­cally big hur­ri­cane, flooded sec­tions of Hous­ton in re­cent weeks. Four coun­ties around Hous­ton, where growth has been buoyed by the oil busi­ness, took the full force of the storm. The pop­u­la­tion of those coun­ties ex­panded by 12 per­cent from 2010 to 2016, to a to­tal of 5.3 mil­lion peo­ple, the AP anal­y­sis shows.

Dur­ing the same years, two of Florida’s fastest­grow­ing coast­line coun­ties — re­tire­ment-friendly Lee and Mana­tee, both south of Tampa — wel­comed 16 per­cent more peo­ple. That area took a sec­ond di­rect hit from Irma af­ter it made first land­fall in the Florida Keys, where dam­age was far more dev­as­tat­ing.

Over­all growth of 10 per­cent in Texas Gulf coun­ties and 9 per­cent along Florida’s coasts dur­ing the same pe­riod was sur­passed only by South Carolina. Its sea­side pop­u­la­tion, led by the Myr­tle Beach area of Horry County, bal­looned by more than 13 per­cent.

Na­tion­ally, coast­line coun­ties grew an av­er­age of 5.6 per­cent since 2010, while in­land coun­ties gained just 4 per­cent. This re­cent trend tracks with decades of de­vel­op­ment along U.S. coasts. Be­tween 1960 and 2008, the na­tional coast­line pop­u­la­tion rose by 84 per­cent, com­pared with 64 per­cent in­land, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­sus Bureau.

Cindy Ger­st­ner, a re­tiree from the in­land moun­tains of up­state New York, moved to a new home in Jan­uary in Dunedin, Florida, west of Tampa. The ranch house sits on a flood plain three blocks from a sound off the Gulf of Mex­ico. She was told it hadn’t flooded in 20 years — and she wasn’t wor­ried any­way.

“I never gave it a thought,” she said dur­ing a visit back to New York as Irma raked Florida. “I al­ways wanted to live down there. I al­ways thought peo­ple who lived in Cal­i­for­nia on earth­quake faults were fool­ish.”

Her en­thu­si­asm for her new home was undi­min­ished by Irma, which broke her fence and knocked out power but left her house dry.

In Horry County, where 19 per­cent growth has led all of South Carolina coast­line coun­ties, Irma caused only mi­nor coastal flood­ing. The county’s low prop­erty taxes are made pos­si­ble by rapid de­vel­op­ment and tourism fees, al­low­ing re­tirees from the North and Mid­west to live more cheaply. Iron­i­cally, pun­ish­ing hur­ri­canes far­ther south in re­cent years has pushed some North­ern­ers known lo­cally as “half­back­ers” to re­turn half­way home from Florida and to re­set­tle in coastal South Carolina.

Add the area’s mod­er­ate weather, ap­peal­ing golf cour­ses, and long white strands — the county is home to Myr­tle Beach — and maybe no one can slow de­vel­op­ment there. “I don’t see how you do it,” said Johnny Vaught, vice chair­man of the county coun­cil. “The only thing you can do is mod­u­late it, so de­vel­op­ments are well de­signed.”

Strong build­ing codes with el­e­va­tion and drainage re­quire­ments, care­ful emer­gency prepa­ra­tions, and a good net­work of roads for evac­u­a­tion help make the area more re­silient to big storms, said the coun­cil chair­man, Mark Lazarus. Such mea­sures give peo­ple “a sense of com­fort,” said Laura Crowther, CEO of the lo­cal Coastal Carolina As­so­ci­a­tion of Real­tors.

Risk re­searchers say more is needed. “We’re get­ting bet­ter at emer­gency re­sponse,” said Tobin at the Univer­sity of South Florida. “We’re not so good at long-term con­trol of ur­ban de­vel­op­ment in haz­ardous ar­eas.”

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency helps re­cov­ery ef­forts with com­mu­nity re­lief and flood in­sur­ance pay­ments. The agency did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. It pro­vides com­mu­nity grants for projects aimed at avoid­ing fu­ture

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