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Seaside Retreat: Redefining Coastal Communities as the Ocean Rises

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We get it now: Sea level is rising and the wrong storm can decimate our coastal communities. Now what?

Aside from doing nothing – which, post-Sandy, post-Katrina, and in the face of mounting impacts, is no longer an option for many – cities and states have a few broad adaptation options. They can try to defend against storm surge and wave action, accommodate increased flooding, or retreat from at-risk areas. Of these, my money would not have been on retreat, in the near-term, given the premium we as a society place on seaside living. But in a post-Sandy world, expect the unprecedented: New York’s Governor Cuomo has announced plans to do just that – help homeowners get out of the way, permanently, of the rising sea, reshaping coastal communities in the process.

In December, a woman watches the Army Corps of Engineers remove her Staten Island home, deposited in the street by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Andre R. Aragon/FEMA)

I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, a coastal city where every square foot of shoreline, it seemed, had something built on it. One neighborhood, surrounded on three sides by Salem Sound, stood out for being so connected to the sea, and thus so special, so coveted. (They had their own parades! We envied them.) It’s because of places like this, when I think about adapting to climate change, that I get stuck on the notion of retreating from the coast. In geologic time, they’ve existed for a millisecond, but in human time, these places are long-standing, local icons and many of our coastal neighbors will not want to go. I wouldn’t. At first.

But today we have the reality of post-Sandy New Jersey using redrawn coastal flood maps that reflect how far sea level has risen since the 1980s, and New York State trying to make sensible investments that balance both recovery and resilience to the next storm. And coastal retreat is squarely on the table.

January view from a Breezy Point, NY dining room as the Army Corps begins clean-up of fully destroyed homes. (Photo: Andre R. Aragon/FEMA)

The idea in New York is that as much as $400 million of federal emergency aid dollars would be used to buy Sandy-damaged homes at pre-storm, full-market value, destroy them, and let the depopulated landscape serve as a coastal buffer from future storms. A system of bonuses aims to encourage the buy-out of entire high-risk neighborhoods, as well as individual homeowners whose houses are undamaged but highly flood-prone. As Governor Cuomo put it recently “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns.”

Not surprisingly, as the NY Times and others report, the early reaction from communities is mixed. In some places, only tiny numbers of homeowners have apparently expressed interest. In others, though, the idea is being embraced. Places like this have been weathering the increasing impacts of accelerating sea-level rise, from erosion to storm surge and flooding. In one badly-damaged Staten Island neighborhood, 80 percent of households have agreed to be bought out if the program goes forward. “We don’t have the fight to stay any more”, the Times quotes a resident. Here, people are resigned to retreat.

This process is going to be fraught. Among the many challenges, we’ll need to guard against coastal retreat becoming an exodus of those who simply can’t afford to stay. But if done with great care, these highly-vulnerable coastal places could in time return to being highly-exposed places – that is, still in the path of storms and flooding like, most recently, the Blizzard of 2013 – but without the human dimension of people, homes, and hopes in harm’s way.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , ,

About the author: Erika Spanger-Siegfried is a senior analyst in the Climate & Energy program at UCS. She currently manages UCS’s coastal and Mountain West climate impacts projects, designed to shed light through new research and outreach on ongoing local impacts, current efforts to cope, and the urgency of high-level action. Erika formerly managed the Energy-Water Initiative (EW3) and, prior to that, the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, a research effort to explore climate change, impacts, and solutions in the northeastern United States. She holds a master’s degree in energy and environmental analysis from Boston University. See Erika's full bio.

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  • Amy Duffield

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of coastal retreat. It is the only realistic and logical solution. After the massive flooding along the Mississippi River years ago, whole towns were moved out of the floodplain. Many coastal areas should be transformed into National Seashores and serve as buffer zones during massive storms. This should most definitely be done in the 9th ward and other areas around New Orleans as well.

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