Hurricane Sandy confirmed what Irene and Katrina had suggested: We will retreat from the edge of the sea. We should do so in a planned, organized manner that protects citizens' interests and the ecological, economic, recreational and aesthetic values of our coasts. This endeavor will require major changes in the way we manage coastal lands.
Coastal storms have killed thousands of people and have caused more than $250 billion in damages in the past 12 years. Yet more and more people live, and build infrastructure, in risky places.
For example, hundreds of thousands of people live on barrier islands along the East and Gulf Coasts. The nature of these low-lying sand islands is to move. Winds, waves and currents, independent of hurricanes, cause barrier islands to roll toward the shore and migrate along the coast. Put another way, they naturally migrate from under buildings placed on them. The population density of U.S. coastal counties increased 28 percent from 1980 to 2003, to about 153 million. Clearly, coastal development must be rethought.
Billions of dollars have been spent building seawalls, jetties, beaches and dunes in efforts to control water flow and sediment movement and, ultimately, to stabilize dynamic shorelines to protect people and property. Since 1922, "renourishment" sand has been pumped on more than 3,700 miles of beach in the United States. That's equivalent to the distance from Bangor, Maine, to Miami and back. Unfortunately, these efforts have often failed. All engineered solutions, whether "hard construction" such as seawalls or "soft construction" like dunes and beaches, have a limited life and have to be rebuilt repeatedly.
For decades, federal, state and local agencies have made legislative and regulatory efforts — including the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1973, the National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994 and the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004 — to address these concerns. But the levels of destruction wrought by Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy show that efforts to date have been wrongly directed or insufficient.
Data show the sea is rising. The frequency and intensity of Atlantic tropical cyclones are projected to increase. Lands that support many homes are likely to be underwater or increasingly vulnerable to storm surges in 100 years.
Retreat from the sea will be painful, but it will hurt most if Americans continue to try to protect all existing infrastructure until the sea destroys it and if we repeatedly rebuild in the same places. We offer these suggestions as a starting point in planning a better way.
• Federal, state and local coastal policies should encourage people to develop in low-risk, environmentally robust areas, not high-risk, environmentally sensitive places.
• Planning should begin to depopulate high-risk areas now, rather than waiting for disasters to cause further loss of life and property.
• Certain things should be recognized as dependent on shorelines, such as shipping terminals, fishing ports, beach recreation, and shorebird and fish habitats. Shoreline dependence should be an important criterion as trade-offs among land uses are evaluated.
• The sea should be walled off only to protect shoreline-dependent infrastructure and only when no other protective actions are possible.
• The coast should be recognized as a limited natural resource that provides ecological, economic, aesthetic, recreational and cultural benefits. New policies should provide a fair balance between the public and private costs of managing the coast and public and private benefits derived from this resource.
For centuries Americans have made their homes on the coast. Its lands and waters have provided food, places to live and safe harbors for the ships that serve centers of commerce. Coastal fish and wildlife, and even storms, have inspired us. We can continue to reap these benefits from the coast, but the benefits will be greatest and the costs least if we manage ourselves wisely.
James D. Fraser, Sarah M. Karpanty and Daniel H. Catlin are coastal ecologists in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment. © 2012 Washington Post