Waves. Photo by Shifaaz Shamoon/Unsplash

The Federal Government Should Do More Than Provide 'Seawalls for Everyone'

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 25, 2019 in The Hill.

The federal government faces a dilemma over how to prepare the American coast for the rising seas and supercharged storms of a warming climate. These twin threats cost the government billions in disaster aid, while endangering communities, critical infrastructure and priceless ecosystems.  

To date, the standard prescription for coastal flooding has been structural protection in the form of seawalls or beach nourishment. Unfortunately, the coastal flood problem gets bigger every year with no end in sight. 

A policy of “seawalls for everyone” would be financially unsustainable, would raise challenging social justice concerns and would impose huge impacts on coastal ecosystems such as beaches and wetlands. The commonsense solution for the long term is to gradually step back from risky coastal places. However, most people living along the coast want to stay right where they are.  

Not surprisingly, faced with this dilemma, the federal government has fallen back on doing what it knows. In response to three major hurricanes in 2017, Congress provided over one hundred billion dollars in aid to communities. 

Helping recover from major disasters is clearly a core function of the federal government. But the certainty of more massive storms and rising seas should also prompt a rethinking of policies and programs to better prepare the country for these risks. Here are five places to start.

First, we need to treat coastal storms and rising sea level as a single problem. Planning for one risk without thinking about the other can lead to fragmentary and ineffective response strategies. For example, elevating buildings is a reasonable strategy when applied to the problem of temporary flooding from storms, but it fails when rising seas bring permanent inundation. 

In addition, existing federal programs for flood insurance and disaster relief urgently need reform. The flood insurance program encourages people to stay in risky coastal places that will eventually be overtaken by rising seas. Disaster programs do a good job of providing relief after a storm but need to refocus on smarter investments to avoid disasters in the first place. 

Some state and local governments are making progress in coping with coastal flood challenges, but the federal government should provide significant new funding for both planning and implementation. These plans need to reflect local needs and conditions but be guided by national frameworks. For example, states and communities need help to evaluate tradeoffs between structural protection (e.g., seawalls) and phased relocation of homes, businesses and infrastructure as seas rise. 

We also need to invest in planning to protect coastal infrastructure and ecosystems. The federal government needs to work with state and local governments to protect or relocate critical infrastructure, such as military bases, transportation assets and water facilities. Ecosystems, such as beaches and wetlands, need space to migrate landward and the federal government should be an advocate for these natural resources.  

Finally, coastal homeowners need help to avoid devastating financial losses as growing flood risks drive down property values. The federal government should buy risky property well ahead of rising sea levels. Current owners should have the option to stay until the property becomes unsafe, paying rent but not flood insurance premiums.  

The fear of large expenditures and hard choices tempt decision makers to delay action for another day, especially when major storms are uncertain from year to year and inundation by rising seas will occur over decades.   

But delayed action will exact a steep cost in lives and property. The population living right along the edge of the coast is expected to almost double by 2060. Prompt action is needed to steer new development away from areas at risk of inundation. Allowing these areas to grow would make fixing the problem later much more difficult and expensive. 

In addition, some new policies are best implemented over the long term. People have made major investments in coastal property and policies encouraging a transition to safer places will work best if we give people the time needed to adjust to a new understanding of risks and avoid financial losses.   

The challenges of protecting the coast from more severe storms and rising seas are intimidating but not insurmountable. Prompt action now will save money and lives. 

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