Preparing for Sea Level Rise: This Is What Bipartisan Leadership Looks Like

, senior analyst, Climate & Energy Program | October 27, 2015, 2:23 pm EDT
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I spent this weekend with a bipartisan group of 40 elected officials from coastal communities around the country. There were 19 Republicans, 17 Democrats, and a handful of independents in the room, apparently, but people’s politics were all but invisible. On display was leadership in the face of a very big challenge.

This Rising Tides 2015 event capped off a week in which Hurricane Patricia exploded into our consciousness as the most powerful hurricane ever measured in the Western Hemisphere, and scientists predicted that 2015 would be the hottest year on record. And while climate change and sea level rise might look more daunting by the day, local leaders are mobilizing. There has never been a meeting quite like this; amidst dismaying news, it’s something to cheer, even as we double down on the hard work ahead.

Rather than recap, I’ve tried to let the event speak for itself through the words of some of the participants in the room.

Hampton Beach, NH, where local leaders convened for the Rising Tides 2015 Summit. Credit: Daniel Melling

Hampton Beach, NH, where local leaders convened for the Rising Tides 2015 Summit. Credit: Daniel Melling

Setting the stage

First, here’s some of what you need to know to put this meeting in context.

Globally sea levels have risen roughly eight inches since 1880. Regionally and locally, some places have seen two, three, and four times as much sea level rise—for example, more than 8 inches in Norfolk, VA, since 1970.

Locally, sea level rise has led to steady increases in tidal flooding events—for example, a more than 5-fold increase in Charleston between the 1970’s and 2010’s. These changes are the result of melting land-based ice and warmer (expanded) ocean water – i.e., global warming.

As climate scientist and UNH professor, Cameron Wake, put it “places like Hampton, New Hampshire, where we’re meeting today, have witnessed sea level rise in recent decades—it’s increasingly visible; depending on the tides, sometimes it’s in the streets—and the rate of increase is only accelerating.”

Charleston SC Oct 2015 king tide

Tidal flooding in Charleston County, September 2015 (prior to Hurricane Joaquin). Robert Brown, State Delegate from Charleston County, spoke of the increase in flooding like this in his district. Credit: Liz Hartje

The view from where they sit

This week, as many participants mentioned, coastal communities will again see so-called “king tides”—instances when, because of astronomical factors, extra-high tides can flood low-lying areas.  That flooding has in fact begun. These instances are becoming more frequent and extensive with rising sea levels, according to recent analysis of the problem by UCS and NOAA, and more importantly, to the real-life experience of thousands of coastal residents.

To put it lightly, this trend is a problem. And a problem that’s landed in the lap of local leaders. In his remarks, Jason Buelterman, Mayor of Tybee Island, Georgia, spoke of flooding at high tide and the repeated closure of the one road in and out of his community.

State Delegate Robert Brown echoed this experience from his rural district south of Charleston, SC: “the king tides are causing havoc.”

In Maine, State Delegate Bob Foley of Maine, spoke of his town’s prized beaches suffering from “major erosion.”

Donna Holaday, Mayor of Newburyport, MA spoke of the risk each winter brings of another coastal home falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

And in Hampton Roads, said State Delegate Christopher Stolle, “it’s hard to name a time when our area wasn’t impacted.”

And then, there are storm surge impacts. Leaders from New Jersey to Texas spoke of the devastation and the hard road to recovery that has followed Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Sandy, and others, and their concern about the future. “None of us can afford to wait for the next crisis” said Jeff Collier of Dauphin Island, AL.

Local leaders eye the future…

Local and federal leaders (NOAA Administrator, Kathryn Sullivan, at the podium) speak to the media during the Summit. Credit: Daniel Melling

Local and federal leaders (NOAA Administrator, Kathryn Sullivan, at the podium) speak to the media during the Summit. Photo: Daniel Melling

The problems, these leaders know, are getting worse.

Sea level rise is accelerating and on track to increase between 1 and 2 feet globally by mid-century, and between 1.5 and over 6 feet by the end of the century. In his keynote remarks, Rear Admiral Jonathan White presented UCS analysis of historic tidal flooding and said that if we want to know where this goes, we should expect steep increases in the decades ahead. We can also expect some low-lying areas to become incessantly flooded and, in time, permanently inundated.

But many coastal areas also expect major development and population growth. For example, Robert Zapple, County Commissioner of New Hanover County, NC, described his region, bounded by the Atlantic on the East and Cape Fear River to the west, as facing a 50 percent population increase in the next 15-20 years. FEMA’s Deputy Associate Administrator, Roy Wright, cites one projection for a doubling of structures in coastal flood zones in the next 80 years.

And as these trends continue to converge, local leaders expect a sea of challenges at the community level.

…while they persevere in the present

Participants in this weekend’s meeting were trying to see what’s coming and help their communities prepare. And it’s complicated, as we heard from participants who seek but usually don’t find the simple, slam-dunk resilience-building measures. Coastal armoring, for example, may feel necessary to community A, but may have substantial, untenable consequences down the coast in community B. But elected officials can’t get stuck in complexity and bad news. The people gathered in Hampton are acting where they can.

  • Sheila Davies, mayor of Kill Devil Hills, NC, relayed that her community decided it could not wait for state or federal help to launch shoreline re-nourishment. And so they have launched and are paying for it themselves, at great (and perhaps unsustainable) expense to the town.
  • The Mayor of Newport Beach, CA, Edward Selich, spoke of his community’s reluctant consideration of a costly harbor gate to keep flood waters at bay.
  • Dawn Zimmer, mayor of Hoboken, NJ—80% of which flooded in Hurricane Sandy—spoke of the comprehensive coastal resilience project her city is engaged in (with federal support) and the progress they’ve made to date.
  • Donna Holaday, spoke of the EPA resiliency grant her town won and is now using to identify priority coastal actions.
  • Hailing from Pismo Beach California, mayor Shelly Higginbotham is working hard for sea wall construction in her town.
  • In Beaufort, SC, Mayor Billy Keyserling is spearheading efforts to identify local flooding hotspots and to develop plans for dealing with the water.

And from the federal level, participants heard from NOAA Administrator, Kathryn Sullivan, about a range of agency initiatives, including a forthcoming tool to provide communities with complete, real-time information on flood drivers, dynamics and conditions. And they heard from Roy Wright, Deputy Associate Administrator for FEMA, about that agencies ongoing efforts; in a highlight of the meeting, the dialogue that followed during Q&A served to break down some key misunderstandings between local and federal administrators.

Helping themselves, but more help is needed

As FEMA’s Roy Wright put it, sea level rise is forcing communities to ask the very hard questions of “what can your community live with?” and, vitally, “what can’t your community live without?” Through their remarks it was clear that these local leaders are actively trying to answer both of these questions. But also clear that when they arrive at answers, their communities will inevitably need help, both in living with the water and in securing those things they can’t live without. They had advice for each other:

  • Have a plan! Several people, from the Mayor of Hoboken to the FEMA administrator, noted that after a coastal disaster, federal agencies make funding available and it is vital that local leaders have a plan for what they want their community to look like going forward.
  • Demand flexibility. Some leaders pointed out that, currently, in the use of federal disaster recovery or preparedness funds, there is no structure that allows communities to put in their own money and get it coupled with federal funding for comprehensive, locally-driven resilience building—and this should change.
  • Be bold. Just because it is uncommon to do things like pass a moratorium on coastal development (as Hoboken, NJ, has done), doesn’t mean it’s not a wise and necessary measure. Participants heard from each other about bold steps like these.
  • Collaborate across parties. NH State Senator Watters spoke of the need for “adaptation and mitigation of our political culture,” recalling that a climate adaptation bill he had introduced several years ago was called “a fantasy not worthy of debate” by a member of the other party. But two years later, with help and of his Republican colleague, that same bill passed. “At the local level, coastal flooding is a non-partisan issue,” summed up Steven Abrams, Commissioner of Palm Beach County, FL.
  • Ask and demand answers to “who will help us pay?” One of the most common themes of the meeting was that there are not enough local resources to pay for this problem and, until some other solution is found, the federal government needs to do more to help communities fund pro-active resilience building. What’s needed, said many participants across regions and political parties, is a federal resilience fund—a “superfund” some called it—that helps communities strengthen themselves in advance of impacts. As Jeff Collier, mayor of Dauphin Island, AL puts it: “The costs associated with coastal flooding are increasing and our communities are going to need help coping with these challenges.”

Climate impacts are hitting us sooner and harder than we expected, and 40 people in a room aren’t going to save the day, nationally. But the elected officials gathered in Hampton, NH, are getting down to the hard work of seeing what the future holds and leading their communities through hard choices, toward important progress.

The event has garnered lots of attention, and though none of the 2016 presidential candidates—all of whom were invited—chose to attend, they should take note: this is what leadership looks like.

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