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Pouring our money into the ocean

September 03 2011 | Events, Coastal development, Economics, Coastal armoring, Culture Shifting,

Last weekend Hurricane Irene was the story topping seemingly every media outlet. As it inched up the Eastern seaboard we saw major metropolitan areas prepare for disaster. Mayor Bloomberg shut down subway lines, regional airports and called for the evacuation of 375,000 people.

Is this a dress rehearsal for decades ahead?

What we’re seeing after Irene is a precursor to what our coastlines will look like years from now due to poorly-planned development and sea level rise. 

The oceans are rising and yet we keep building closer and closer to the ocean. I could write a separate post about how coastal homeowners and coastal developers have an incentive to build that close (property values increase the closer you get to the ocean, when storm damage hits in many cases they aren’t the ones to pay for damages, we all are).

What we saw last weekend isn’t anything new. Almost every year, multiple hurricanes hit the East coast and Gulf of Mexico. As I write this another hurricane is threatening oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil rig operators are already shutting down.

In times of calm, there is little political will to address risks along the coast, but when a disaster strikes, there is inevitably a siren call to rebuild along the coastline in the exact way that caused the problems in the first place. This is something that the Surfrider Foundation is trying to stop.

Building in the path of perennial harm is not a good idea.

Rebuilding in the path of expected, systemic hurricanes is a very expensive idea.

We just watched a hurricane sweep up the east coast and even though it it’s impact on all major metropolitan areas was relatively slight, it is still estimated to cost $7 billion dollars in damages.

So the logical question becomes, will we rebuild in the same areas?

Will we learn anything?

We, all of us, will spend $7 billion dollars for the last hurricane. How much will the next ones cost us?

We will spend billions upon billions to rebuild in the exact same places we are expecting future natural disasters in the form of hurricanes.

In regions where there is high earthquake activity building codes have evolved to take seismic activity into account. The equivalent in areas where hurricanes are expected is “managed retreat.” We need to build further away from the coasts, we need to let natural coastal buffers, such as dunes, protect us and protect our property/economy.

Our coastlines are dynamic and need room to move about, and if they can’t, then we lose them.  If the coastline is free of development, we need to protect them.  If there are areas where erosion threatens existing coastal developments, we need to find the appropriate long-term solution that maximizes the public’s benefit. 


We can’t wait for rising sea levels and intense hurricanes to change the way we think about coastal development, we need to do begin the dialogue now so that our coastlines are there in the future.

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