Dis­as­trous storms not enough to curb de­sire for coastal liv­ing

The Times-Tribune - - Front Page - 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.

Les­son not learned

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 fastest-grow­ing 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.

Fu­ture threats

Coast­line com­mu­ni­ties face more storm threats in the fu­ture.

Global warm­ing from hu­man-gen­er­ated green­house gases is melt­ing po­lar ice and el­e­vat­ing sea lev­els at an in­creas­ing pace, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Administration. That am­pli­fies storm surges and other flood­ing. Also, some cli­mate mod­els used by sci­en­tists pre­dict stronger, more fre­quent hur­ri­canes as an­other ef­fect of global warm­ing in com­ing decades.

“There will be some real chal­lenges for coastal towns,” pre­dicted Jamie Kruse, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Nat­u­ral Haz­ards Re­search at East Carolina Univer­sity in Greenville, North Carolina. “We’ll see some of these homes that are part of their tax base be­com­ing un­liv­able.”

Hazard re­searchers said they see noth­ing in the near term to re­verse the trend to­ward big­ger storm losses. As a stop­gap, com­mu­ni­ties should cease build­ing new high-rises on the ocean­front, said Robert Young, di­rec­tor of the Pro­gram for the Study of De­vel­oped Shore­lines at Western Carolina Univer­sity in Cul­lowhee, North Carolina.


De­bris sur­rounds a de­stroyed struc­ture Wed­nes­day in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Irma in Big Pine Key, Fla.

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