Coastal Communities on the Front Lines of Sea Level Rise and Flooding: Convening a Conversation

April 24, 2013
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Last week, almost six months after Hurricane Sandy came ashore to devastating effect, UCS convened a multi-state roundtable on the growing risks from sea level rise, storm surges, and flooding. Officials from Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia, together with a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, came together to talk about what they are doing to help protect their communities from these risks and what future steps may be needed to build resilience.

Global warming is the primary contributor to accelerating global sea level rise

In tandem with the roundtable, UCS also released a fact sheet and an infographic on global warming and sea level rise.

Sea-Level-Rise-and-Global-Warming-Infographic-Fact2_Full-Size

View infographic

Global warming is causing ocean waters to warm and expand. It is also causing land-based ice (glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets) to melt and shrink, adding water to the oceans. Together, these mechanisms have caused global sea level to rise 8 inches since the Industrial Revolution.

Scientific projections show that, most likely, global sea level will rise an additional 6 to 16 inches above current levels by 2050, and 12 to 48 inches by 2100.

The East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. are sea level rise “hot spots,” facing higher and faster rates of local sea level rise than the global average. Local and regional factors such as ocean currents and land subsidence contribute to these above average rates of local sea level rise. For example, since 1880, Virginia Beach, VA has seen 30 inches of sea level rise; Atlantic City, NJ has seen 20 inches; New York City has seen 14 inches; Miami Beach, FL has seen 12 inches; and Wilmington, NC has seen 10 inches.

Officials on the front lines of response to costly sea level rise

Participants at the roundtable included over 25 officials and experts on the front lines of responding to the impacts of today’s sea level rise and preparing for the threats of the future. Cities and counties in southern Florida are already facing billions of dollars of expenditures to address problems caused or exacerbated by sea level rise. The cost of Sandy to the state of New York was estimated to be $32.8 billion, according to Governor Cuomo. New Jersey Governor Christie estimated the cost to his state from Sandy to be $29.4 billion.

Local officials are already starting to take important steps to help build coastal community resilience such as recommending elevation of structures, investing in shoreline protection, and assessing local risks and vulnerabilities. They shared their experiences and discussed best practices for protecting coastal communities. They also highlighted the need for a coordinated response across local, state, regional, and national levels to deal with these risks.

Speaking to the public about risks, choices, and opportunities

During the day, some officials also participated in a press conference that I helped moderate. The speakers included:

Kathryn Garcia, Chief Operating Officer, New York City Department of Environmental Protection; Stephen Marks, Assistant business administrator, City of Hoboken, New Jersey; Kristin Jacobs, Mayor, Broward County, Florida; Clay Bernick, Environment & Sustainability Administrator, City of Virginia Beach, Virginia; Phil Prete, Senior environmental planner, City of Wilmington, North Carolina; and  Joe Vietri, Director, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) National Planning Center for Coastal Risk Reduction and Sandy Comprehensive Study.

News reports from the press conference highlight the challenges that coastal communities face from storm surge and flooding. But it was also very encouraging to note that these officials recognize that addressing climate change is a key part of responding to these risks.

As Stephen Marks of Hoboken said, “The debate about climate change is essentially over. Hurricane Sandy settled that for, I would say, a majority of the residents of our city.” The city, a 2-square-mile municipality of 50,000 people, was overwhelmed by 500 million gallons of Hudson River water during Sandy.

Kristin Jacobs, Mayor of Broward County, is a veteran at dealing with the impacts of sea level rise. Many parts of the Atlantic coast of Florida now routinely face flooding during high tides, especially during the “King Tides” (which occur when the earth, sun, and moon are in such an alignment as to create the greatest gravitational pull on the ocean waters and therefore especially high tides). Jacobs is a founding member of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a joint commitment of Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach Counties to partner in mitigating the causes and adapting to the consequences of climate change.

Joe Vietri, representing the USACE, signaled that the Corps is attempting to incorporate the reality of climate change into its future efforts to protect the US shoreline. He is heading up the Sandy Comprehensive Study authorized by Congress “to address the flood risks of vulnerable coastal populations in areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy within the boundaries of the North Atlantic Division of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.” With Sandy, he said “What we really got a glimpse at was our collective future.”

Emergency preparedness and long-term planning

The officials recognized the need to plan better for storms like Sandy, including strategies for coping with flooding, power outages, downed infrastructure, closing down of transit, emergency evacuations, and supplying basic needs to affected people. However, they also noted the importance of a more long-term framework of planning so that communities are in a better place to cope with emergencies when they arise.

For example, Vietri noted that local communities have some difficult choices to make about their future development. “You still have communities rebuilding almost exactly where they were prior to the storm coming,” Vietri said at the press conference. “You continue to have a situation where we have a tremendous population density living in high-hazard areas.”

Driving forward the preparedness conversation

The rich discussions at the roundtable showed a clear need for and willingness of local officials to engage in a locally-informed conversation about effectively responding to sea level rise and its impacts. Sharing lessons across state boundaries is critical. To take this to the next level, similar conversations need to also happen at the regional and national level. And they must also involve policy makers who are willing to put the interests of their constituents, who are already facing climate impacts, above narrow party-line ideologies.

Feature image: Courtesy of Miami Dade County Permitting, Environment and Regulatory Affairs