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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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