Lessons from past bode poorly for fu­ture

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP-ED - Or­rin H. Pilkey Or­rin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of earth and ocean sci­ences at Duke Univer­sity’s Ni­cholas School of the En­vi­ron­ment. He may be con­tacted at [email protected]

The end of the 2018 hur­ri­cane sea­son is a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve learned from re­cent storms.

In the past two years, 18 North At­lantic hur­ri­canes struck the U.S., five of which were very dan­ger­ous by any mea­sure. It is not un­rea­son­able to as­sume that these pow­er­ful storms are the begin­ning of the “new nor­mal” — the im­pact of a warm­ing ocean on hur­ri­cane in­ten­sity.

In 2017, an un­prece­dented three su­per­storms — Har­vey, Irma, and Maria — hit the U.S. coast. Har­vey tied Ka­t­rina as the most de­struc­tive hur­ri­cane since 1900, dam­ag­ing 130,000 homes ($125 bil­lion) and dump­ing a na­tional record 60 inches of rain on Hous­ton, a city spec­tac­u­larly un­pre­pared for flood­ing. Irma struck eight Caribbean is­lands, Cuba, south­west Florida, and skimmed past the Florida Keys, de­stroy­ing 25 per­cent of the build­ings there ($53 bil­lion). Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, caus­ing dev­as­ta­tion over much of the is­land ($90 bil­lion) and killing an es­ti­mated 2,975 peo­ple.

Things didn’t let up in 2018 as Florence and Michael came ashore, both su­per­storms in my view. Florence ($19 bil­lion) pro­duced a state record rain­fall of 35 inches in North Carolina and caused more dam­age than the two North Carolina hur­ri­canes (Floyd and Matthew) com­bined. Michael ($11 bil­lion) nearly de­stroyed Mex­ico Beach, Florida, and had the third low­est air pres­sure ever mea­sured in the U.S., be­hind the 1900 Galve­ston storm and Ka­t­rina.

Rec­og­niz­ing the probable re­la­tion­ship be­tween global cli­mate change and this in­creas­ingly se­vere storm ac­tiv­ity, the time has come to take stock of our coastal de­vel­op­ment along the At­lantic and Gulf coasts. We will not only likely suf­fer through a con­tin­u­ing string of more in­tense storms, but also con­tend with a ris­ing sea level. Yet, de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues along the Amer­i­can shore­line, plac­ing more peo­ple and more prop­erty in harm’s way. It is time for that to cease.

Al­ready, sea level rise fears are hav­ing an im­pact on near-beach house prices. A true crash in prices may be just around the cor­ner be­cause of four fac­tors:

(1) Fed­eral flood in­sur­ance is likely to be­come ac­tu­ar­ial (start pay­ing for it­self), which will make beach home own­er­ship con­sid­er­ably more ex­pen­sive be­cause the costs of in­sur­ance will more ac­cu­rately re­flect the risks of liv­ing along the coast.

(2) Beach nour­ish­ment, now the pre­ferred way to deal with shore­line ero­sion and save houses, will likely be­come much less im­por­tant be­cause of sand short­age and shorter beach life spans due to ris­ing seas and big­ger storms.

(3) In­creas­ingly there is pub­lic con­cern about tax­pay­ers pay­ing much of the cost (mil­lions of dol­lars per mile) of beach nour­ish­ment. “Why should I pay since I wasn’t the one to build next to the beach? It’s a form of wel­fare for the rich.”

(4) Com­mon sense will pre­vail when the pub­lic rec­og­nizes that the houses be­ing re­paired to­day are just be­ing set up for the next storm. Does it make sense to sim­ply re­build af­ter ev­ery storm, when much of the cost is at tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense?

And what can be done with the big cities? Mi­ami is likely doomed and will need to be aban­doned, in part be­cause the low-ly­ing city is perched on top of very por­ous lime­stone through which the sea will rise. Fort Laud­erdale is not much bet­ter. Tampa and St. Peters­burg are vul­ner­a­ble be­cause the “right” storm (com­ing across the shore­line in a north­east­erly di­rec­tion) will cause im­mense dam­age to these low-ly­ing cities. By or­ders of mag­ni­tude, the state of Florida leads the way in num­bers of cities and towns threat­ened by the sea.

Cities not on bar­rier is­lands, like Bos­ton, New York, Philadel­phia, Los An­ge­les, and Seat­tle, can pos­si­bly be saved, at least for a while, by con­struc­tion of mas­sive sea walls, though these cities will face dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions of which ar­eas to aban­don and which ones to pro­tect with mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture projects.

We are not Holland, which has a coast­line ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 miles long. In that small coun­try, there is nowhere to re­treat from a ris­ing sea, which means in­tense en­gi­neer­ing is re­quired for na­tional sur­vival. The U.S., with 94,571 miles of coast­line to pro­tect, can­not af­ford the Dutch ap­proach and, in­stead, we must move homes and com­mu­ni­ties away from much of the coast­line.

Al­ready, sea level rise fears are hav­ing an im­pact on near-beach house prices. A true crash in prices may be just around the cor­ner.

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