Ecocentric

After Sandy: Why We Can’t Keep Rebuilding on the Water’s Edge

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stephen Wilkes for TIME

The Breezy Point neighborhood at the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, N.Y., where more than 100 homes were consumed by fires during Superstorm Sandy

It’s so obvious we forget it: an extreme-weather event becomes a disaster only if it hits where people and their possessions are. Of the 19 tropical storms that were tracked during this summer’s Atlantic hurricane season, 10 veered off harmlessly into the Atlantic Ocean, never making landfall. But when a storm like Sandy tracks over the most heavily populated stretch of land in the western hemisphere, the damage to people and property can be immense. Sandy wasn’t the strongest storm — it was just barely a Category 1 hurricane when it made landfall at the end of last month — but both its death toll and its economic damage were high simply because so many people were in its path. Storm plus people equals natural disaster. The hurricane is the spark, but population is the tinder.

That’s why, as the Northeast begins the long process of rebuilding, we need to think about what we can do to minimize the number of people and the value of the property that might be in the way of the next storm. So far, most of that discussion has settled around the possibility of building multibillion-dollar seawalls and barriers that might be able to shield Manhattan and other vulnerable places from the kind of storm surges that caused so much destruction during Sandy. Seawalls do have their place — the Connecticut town of Stamford escaped major damage thanks in part to its own barrier — especially as the climate warms and seas rise. But if people didn’t live in so many high-risk places, we wouldn’t have to put any protective infrastructure there at all.

(PHOTOS: Art for Sandy: Iconic, Collectable Photographs to Benefit Hurricane Sandy Relief)

The reason so many Americans make their homes in storm and flood zones is partly because we simply like living along the water. But the other part is that government-subsidized flood insurance essentially eliminates the financial risk. The question now, after Sandy, is whether we’ll keep making the same circular mistake, paying billions to put people back in harm’s way, or whether we’ll instead say, “Build if you want, but the risk is all yours.”

The Northeast spots that were most heavily damaged by Sandy — and, sadly, the areas where the most lives were lost — were in housing developments that were built very close to the coast, places like Staten Island and Breezy Point in New York, and Ocean County on the New Jersey shore. As the Huffington Post made clear in a deeply reported piece last week, those same areas had seen dramatic development over the past couple of decades, despite the fact that government officials knew that the coastal land would be vulnerable to flooding from a major storm:

Given the size and power of the storm, much of the damage from the surge was inevitable. But perhaps not all. Some of the damage along low-lying coastal areas was the result of years of poor land-use decisions and the more immediate neglect of emergency preparations as Sandy gathered force, according to experts and a review of government data and independent studies.

Authorities in New York and New Jersey simply allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades, even as the potential for a massive storm surge in the region became increasingly clear.

In the end, a pell-mell, decades-long rush to throw up housing and businesses along fragile and vulnerable coastlines trumped commonsense concerns about the wisdom of placing hundreds of thousands of closely huddled people in the path of potential cataclysms.

(PHOTOS: The Toil After the Storm: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

States like New York and New Jersey were hardly alone in packing people along the coastlines: a 2005 report from Princeton University noted that nearly a quarter of the world’s population lives less than 328 ft. (100 m) above sea level and within 60 miles (97 km) of the coast. But HuffPo notes that Ocean County’s population rose nearly 70% from 1980 to 2010, and in that final year alone, more residential building permits were issued in that county than in any other in New Jersey. In New York as well, hundreds of new structures have gone up in the high-risk storm-surge area of Staten Island.

Human beings have been crowding along the coasts for as long as they’ve been building cities, and air travel and the Internet haven’t made ports obsolete yet. But in the past, those who made the choice to live near the ocean also knew to treat its immense power with respect, even building their homes facing the land. Today we’re much more reckless, and an ocean view is worth paying extra for.

As Justin Gillis and Felicity Barringer wrote in the New York Times this week, the federal government is bound not just by elective policy but also by law to pay for most of the cost of fixing storm-damaged infrastructure — including homes. Add in the National Flood Insurance Program, which offers consumers in coastal danger zones below-market protection from floods, and you can see how the federal government is almost making it easier to live in a danger zone than to make the hard choice of relocating:

Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas. If history is any guide, a large fraction of the federal money allotted to New York, New Jersey and other states recovering from Hurricane Sandy — an amount that could exceed $30 billion — will be used the same way.

Tax money will go toward putting things back as they were, essentially duplicating the vulnerability that existed before the hurricane.

The federal government’s flood-insurance program is already under major financial strain, and Sandy could cost as much as $7 billion just in terms of government insurance claims, while the program itself is only allowed to add an additional $3 billion to its currently high debt levels. That might prompt lawmakers to finally reform the program — and if subsidized flood insurance is no longer a given, we might also begin to see a slowdown in coastal population growth. That’s long overdue. We can try to reduce climate change and we can try to build physical protections for established coastal population centers. But the best way to ensure that the next Sandy does less damage is simply to keep people out of harm’s way — or at least make it more expensive to stay there.

VIDEO: After Sandy: Snow and Slow Recovery on Staten Island

PHOTOS: The Most Destructive U.S. Hurricanes of All Time

36 comments
Shinebright
Shinebright

Why? Miami, Key West- heck all the keys, Florida can all handle hurricanes. But NY can barely handle a Tropical depression? The problem is how they build. It shouldn't be the taspayer's problem if they refuse to be prepared by building appropriately.

JohnPaily
JohnPaily

Mother Earth and Father God are not destructive in their nature. We are simply reaping the product of our ignorance and greed. The natural catastrophes are only an awakening call to the world to know the Simple Living Truth of Nature. Only Truth can awaken the consciousness of the world and illuminate its mind to force nations to take note of CLIMATE CHANGE and take corrective steps. There is no time to waste. Earth and its environment is unstable so too is humanity. Materialistic Rich and religious people who know not God are leading the world to disaster. I am convinced that Humanity would awaken to simple Principle, Design and functioning of Earth and enter the Golden Age. The question is how much price we end up giving before we awaken. It is over a decade since I have been struggling to bring out the Truth of Nature and Her functioning revealed to me by Nature and Her master By Grace, as I approached them as freelancer. I have seen greater and greater catastrophes striking humanity since then. I strive with hope that world can awaken and come back to life from the jaws of death. It is a matter of temples of science and nations awakening to the knowledge of how earth sustains the energy to matter ratio and develop energy management of earth environment to live in harmony with nature. http://www.scribd.com/doc/114273537/Climate-Change-and-Its-Relation-to-Energy

davoyager
davoyager

It is not insane to continue to build up the land in response to rising sea levels and storm surges, like kids at the beach who build sand fortifications. It is not unprecedented and is often successful for a while. Long term we just gotta get the co2 out of the air. 

rrmackay
rrmackay

It is ridiculous to think that people will move away from the water and leave empty tracks of land - the human race is drawn to the seaside in every culture, in every country throughout time, to imagine that the tide of humanity will be held back by some zoning changes is silly.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

Any one who doesn't take this seriously should take a few minutes to google South Cape May New Jersey. These 100 year storms (Im laughing at folks who seriously consider a class 1 hurricane a 100 year event) happen every 15-20 years. 

Heck Wild Wood new Jersey has to close the only 2 of the 3 bridges off the island every time there is a tropical storm because the storm surges flood the bases of the roadbed. While I dont think the coastal islands should be closing down I DO think they the folks choosing to live on ocean front property should bere the brunt of the cost of insuring themselves which will of course motivate them to build storm breaks and refit homes with break away surge panels and build on stilts.

jdyer2
jdyer2

I live inland and made sure to purchase a house away from any flood zone. My home is fully privately insured against any type of destruction nature throws my way.  I also pay taxes.

You're welcome.

redleg
redleg

look at the picture. most of the houses were fine. the ruined ones were done in by FIRE or were right on the coastline.  50 yards in and it's hardly any damage

JohnCollins
JohnCollins

“If you gave me several million years, there would be nothing that did not grow in beauty if it were surrounded by water “

JAN ERIK VOLD

RivalryMaker
RivalryMaker

Quit trying to control what people do liberals. You want there to be a tax for everything else under the sun...even when it makes no sense whatsoever. You clearly can afford to pay a tax to rebuild these homes regardless of where they decide to rebuild.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I'm FINE with people building on the coast.  I'm NOT fine with people getting taxpayer money to fix what THEY build when it gets washed away.  If they want to accept the risks, great.  If they don't, don't expect the rest of us to pay for their foolishness.

honna3030
honna3030

Keep rebuilding?  It happens once every 100 years.

DianeKrstulovich
DianeKrstulovich

The coasts ought to be for EVERYONE to enjoy.  Not just a few wealthy people.

DianeKrstulovich
DianeKrstulovich

I think North Carolina has a law against building any permanent stucture within x yards of the coast or the beach.  We all should.  BRING BACK BEACHES!  They help us to live at peace with Mother Nature.  Sea walls all aound the coastlines just create PROBLEMS!

JeremyHerring
JeremyHerring

Isn't it our God-given right as Americans to act according to our own self-serving interests and then expect the government to bail us out when our poor decisions and excesses lead us into trouble? Isn't that why we have industry-wide bailouts, nationwide bank and mortgage bailouts, and subsidies for everything that we don't think we should be required to pay the 'real' price?  Didn't we just reelect the President who promised us universal health care and is well on the way to delivering it, final cost be damned?  This is the country we live in now, in which no one wants to take responsibility for themselves because there's always going to be some elected official who we can expect to milk the system for us to get some benefit above and beyond what we've paid into the system.  We have school lunch monitors making sure parents don't pack unhealthy lunches or banning bag lunches altogether so that the education system can dictate each child's diet.  By this children learn that authorities are always going to be looking over their shoulder so they passively accept that cities are just allowed to regulate the size of sodas because it serves a greater good.  So why would we expect a coddled, insulated, pandered generation raised by helicopter parents to grow up and make any better choices than the previous generation?  The solution doesn't start with ending the cycle of rebuilding, the solution starts with people taking responsibility for their own lives and instilling the same principles in their children.

gmc
gmc

"the other part is that government-subsidized flood insurance essentially eliminates the financial risk"

that is the whole issue

FEMA created those ridiculous communities and FEMA fixes them when they fail.  Bureaucratic gold.

Ah.

More important perhaps is the systematic non-coverage of so much real news, just as one eg Keith Harmon Snow, its systematic.  Endemic.  Putrid.  Ignored.  But yeah FEMA insuring people to live irresponsibly.

The waste of earth and life for nothing.

abelinone
abelinone

You know... you don't even have to stop living near the water.  Just stop building drag sensitive structures near the waters edge.

stephengreen732
stephengreen732

As if that would happen, common sense should be, BUILD AT YOUR RISK.. 

And whatever you do, don't expect us to fix it for you. And wake up Washington and stop throwing OUR money away!

redleg
redleg

laughable in the extreme. people will ALWAYS live near the water, forever. there have been storms forever as well. people lived for DECADES without a problem and now because a few will be inconvenienced for a few months EVERYONE must leave forever. ya that's intelligent thinking

MelDaDiva
MelDaDiva

Thank you for this article...We cannot continue to stress the earth with increased population...

ReopenTheCHEGG
ReopenTheCHEGG

I think you need to educate yourself a little bit better on Ocean County, NJ.  

By and large, the areas that were devastated were the barrier islands, which are home (or second home) to fairly wealthy people.  Mantoloking? Where that bridge washed away and the houses were floating in the bay?  That house in the water (formerly ON the water) was worth $2 mil 'til it started raining.  They can afford it.

The population boom in Ocean County is related to the simple fact that it is actually very affordable to live here, compared to everything north of us.  A large percentage of the increase is attributable to the 90-plus age restricted communities we have here, 55 and over only please, which are for the most part concentrated  miles inland from the shore.  Another part is Ocean Acres, a huge single family develoipment in Manahawkin, west of Long Beach Island, where families could still afford to buy shiny new houses and which brought a lot of north Jerseyans down in the last 15 years or so (until they couldn't afford the gas to get back up to Union County to go to work anymore, and the Acres became a foreclosure disaster).   

This despite the fact that - I can promise you - it is enormously difficult to build anything in Ocean County because this is the place in the state where ridiculously complex zoning laws run into well designed and utterly inflexible environmental laws.  Too close to the shore and you have to deal with Coastal Area regs (CAFRA), 10 miles west and you are into Pinelands Regulations.   Lots of people will be in for a second shock, maybe worse than Sandy, when they find out that their homes were built 40 years ago on land that is now undevelopable.  The houses built on wetlands another commenter referred to - they can't be rebuilt no matter who paws their feet at the zoning office. 

BillBorden
BillBorden

Developers in Ocean County made a lot of money building homes over what used to be wetlands (aka swamps) that would have absorbed much of a hurricane or tropical storm's impact. 

Johmbe
Johmbe

@redleg That's an arial shot smart guy, what detail can you really see? I'm on Fire Island, NY and probably at least 70% of homes here were damaged. Almost 100% of those near the shore (on both bay and ocean sides) were severely damaged. Irene last year, Sandy this year. Over twenty-five tornado touchdowns in the past two years in NY and New England. This is the new normal and it's only going to get worse. Sinking money into rebuilding the dunes and homes  is like trying to smother a forest fire with cash.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@RivalryMaker Holy crap, the amount of stupidity in your comment is burning my eye.

The whole thrust of his argument is questioning a federally sponsored tax payer funded program that allows some Americans to offset the risk involved with their homes and business to other Americans. The author in no way said the fed should be telling people were to build but it should be telling them that we (the American taxpayer) will not subsidizes their flood insurance.

The author is in fact arguing AGAINST a tax

redleg
redleg

@stephengreen732 stay inside your fetid bungalow you sad and angry fellow.  i suppose we must evacuate california as well what with the quakes, and the midwest because of tornadoes, etc etc.  You are absolutely ridiculous.

stephengreen732
stephengreen732

@redleg yea it's either that or YOU get to pay for their bailout with the next one hits, Really intelligent thinking..

BillBorden
BillBorden

@ReopenTheCHEGG Beach Haven West in Manahawkin, Laguna Village in Point Pleasant, Mystic Islands in Little Egg Harbor, much of Lanoka Harbor and Bayville are built on swamps.  Dredge some lagoons out of the swampland and build on top of the spoils.  Those areas were very hard hit by Sandy and there was nothing there to cushion those sections from the rising bay waters. 

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@LesMoore  Thats not what he is saying. He is saying that if people want to live on the coast then they should have to accept the risk involved with living on the coast. There are plenty of Americans who are willing to pony up 3k a month for 500 sq foot flats so that they can enjoy the NY night life and the NJ board walks. If you can afford that then you can afford 200$ worth of regional flood insurance.

redleg
redleg

@DeweySayenoff @redleg @honna3030 the "projections" lol.  it's sad young people are so naive.  mother nature's "train tracks"?  what a LAUGH! people have always lived by the water and they always will. big deal that a stupid set of walls fall down. rebuilding is easy. it's not a problem it's a process.  there were more storms in the northeast between 1950 and 1960 than at any time before or after that, major hurricanes almost every 2 years hitting the coast . . . get over yourself!

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@redleg @DeweySayenoff @honna3030 Actually, the projections are 100 year storms every 3-20 years starting about a decade ago.  In the Midwest, 100-500 year floods have happened three times in ten years.  In the Atlantic Hurricane Sandy was the second storm to combined with two other weather fronts in less than 30 years to produce 100-250 year storms.  

Oceanic conditions indicate that while MORE storms aren't necessarily going to happen, LARGER and more destructive storms are.  The jet streams are already moving more than previously thought, bringing drought to more rainy places and rain to previously drier places in the US alone.  Talk to Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and other southern states about that.

I'm a firm believer in Darwin.  If people are moronic enough to build on the coast, they deserve whatever grief they get.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  But do NOT make the taxpayers pay for their stupidity.  If they should shoulder the responsibility for their own folly, then I'm FINE with them rebuilding three times in their adult lives.

But if YOU think rebuilding is a casual, simple, esy, worry and stress-free thing to do, you either have too much money for your own good or you've never been through it.  

I suspect the latter.

Someone has to be pretty idiotic to rebuild on Mother Nature's train tracks, but I never underestimate the power of human stupidity.  So go for it.  I'll read in the news how it worked out for you.