Costs up with more beach prop­er­ties in harm’s way

The Palm Beach Post - - AFTERMATH OF FLORENCE - By Melissa Ete­had

In 1960, roughly 845,000 peo­ple lived in the 24 coun­ties along the Carolina coast.

By 2000, the num­ber was more than 1.5 mil­lion as the de­mand for beach liv­ing and ocean views con­tin­ued to rise.

The coastal pop­u­la­tion to­day tops 2 mil­lion.

The de­vel­op­ment boom per­sisted de­spite warn­ings that global warm­ing would con­tinue to raise sea lev­els and could in­crease the in­ten­sity of storms.

As in many places with strong Repub­li­can tra­di­tions, the is­sue of cli­mate change re­mains highly con­tentious in North and South Carolina.

But you don’t have to trust cli­mate-change sci­ence to see the ob­vi­ous: With more de­vel­op­ment along the coast, there is more to de­stroy when a hur­ri­cane strikes.

“We know that the cost of hur­ri­canes have been ris­ing over time and that’s largely due to coastal de­vel­op­ment,” said Christy Dahl, a se­nior cli­mate sci­en­tist at the non­profit Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists. “We sim­ply have more stuff and more prop­erty in harm’s way.”

Res­i­dents of the Carolina coast are now con­fronting that re­al­ity as Hur­ri­cane Florence — now a trop­i­cal storm — bears down on their bil­lions of dol­lars in real es­tate. All they can do now is hope that that it shows them some mercy.

Sci­en­tists say that it is dif­fi­cult to at­tribute any given storm or other ex­treme weather event to cli­mate change. There were pow­er­ful hur­ri­canes be­fore the in­dus­trial age started pump­ing car­bon and other green­house gases into the at­mos­phere.

Ris­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures give hur­ri­canes more power. A warm­ing at­mos­phere gives hur­ri­canes more mois­ture. And ris­ing sea lev­els mean stronger storm surges and more flood­ing.

“We won’t nec­es­sar­ily see more hur­ri­canes but we would ex­pect them to be­come stronger,” Dahl said.

That is un­less the world dras­ti­cally re­duces emis­sions, an un­likely prospect given the cur­rent state of global pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics.

In the mean­time, re­searchers say that a good share of fu­ture dam­age could be averted with bet­ter de­vel­op­ment and land-use poli­cies.

Roger A. Pielke, pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Colorado, has stud­ied hur­ri­cane dam­ages dat­ing back decades and con­cluded that the ris­ing toll has less to do with the power of those storms than with the in­creas­ing amount of de­vel­op­ment in their path.

“The fact that there’s more peo­ple and prop­erty and wealth is why dam­age in­creases,” he said.

One of the prob­lems is that in the U.S., land-use pol­icy is usu­ally de­cided lo­cally, mak­ing a broader strat­egy dif­fi­cult to im­pose.

Dahl said Hur­ri­cane Har­vey was es­pe­cially dev­as­tat­ing be­cause rapid de­vel­op­ment in the Hous­ton area had changed the char­ac­ter of the land in a way that pro­vided lim­ited es­cape paths for the record rain­fall that ac­com­pa­nied the 2017 storm.

“It went from a nat­u­ral land­scape to hav­ing im­per­fect sur­faces like con­crete and asphalt,” she said.

The re­sult was wide­spread flood­ing.

“We need to be think­ing about two things: where we are de­vel­op­ing and en­sur­ing we are not putting more peo­ple and prop­erty in high risk zones,” Dahl said.

North Carolina flouted that ad­vice.

In 2009, the state’s Coastal Re­sources Com­mis­sion con­tacted sci­en­tists to re­port on sea-level rise.

The sci­en­tists pub­lished a re­port the next year pro­ject­ing that by 2100 the sea would rise by at least 39 inches.

That was un­wel­come news dur­ing a de­vel­op­ment boom that was pump­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into coastal projects. Skep­ti­cal of the sci­ence and be­holden to the in­ter­ests of de­vel­op­ers, the Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated state leg­is­la­ture re­jected the study.

In 2012, leg­is­la­tors passed a law or­der­ing lo­cal agen­cies to ig­nore con­sid­er­a­tion of sea-level rise when mak­ing de­vel­op­ment poli­cies for at least the next four years.

SHAWN ROCCO / RALEIGH NEWS & OB­SERVER / MCT / FILE

As far back as Au­gust 2011 when Hur­ri­cane Irene hit, aban­doned beach-front houses are af­fected in Nags Head, N.C.

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