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What to Do About Coastal Storms and Rising Seas

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 November 21, 2019 in the American Society of Adaptation Professionals' Blog.

Major coastal storms commonly kill hundreds of people and wreck homes, businesses and communities resulting in billions of dollars in damages. And in a warming climate, more intense storms and rising seas will expand risks to life and property.

The country has provided hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from recent coastal storms but done nowhere near enough to prepare for the more damaging storms and coastal inundation that are coming. ASAP members will play a critical role in helping to get the country on track to managing these risks.

What should we do to rethink our approach to protecting the coasts? Over the past several years, I reviewed the literature and talked to experts on this critical topic. In my bookA New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising SeasI suggest 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.

A warming climate will bring stronger storms and rising seas to the nation’s coasts. Now is the time to reform and strengthen the national effort to prepare for growing coastal risks.

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