Is Rebuilding Storm-Struck Coastlines Worth The Cost?

Oct 27, 2013
Originally published on October 27, 2013 12:10 pm

One year ago Tuesday, Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, devastating shoreline communities from Florida to Maine.

Many of these areas have been rebuilt, including the Long Beach boardwalk, about 30 miles outside New York City. Officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new boardwalk Friday.

Ninety percent of the funding for the restoration came from the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid $44 million to repair the devastation.

Jack and Roseanne Vanderbeck love the new boardwalk. They come every weekend to power walk along the beach.

"I missed it last winter," says Jack Vanderbeck. "The old boardwalk actually was getting beat up a lot. This is much easier to walk on. People now don't get splinters."

"It's really beautiful," his wife adds. "They really did a great job."

But should the federal government pay for shore restorations, when the beaches are sure to be hit and damaged by future storms?

Rob Young, who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, is one of many geologists who say taxpayers are shelling out too much cash to rebuild coastal areas that will continue to be ravaged by the effects of climate change.

"After storms, the federal government creates this moral hazard, in my opinion," Young says. "We spend billions of dollars rebuilding coastal communities, a lot of it in place."

The argument for the spending is that the coastal economy is worth the money. But Young asks, "If the coastal economy is that strong and vibrant, why can't they pay for the risk of being here themselves?"

Stay Put Or Retreat?

Young suggests that some coastal areas should be abandoned altogether because climate change is eating away at the nation's shorelines.

"The primary response post-Sandy has been to elevate some homes and elevate some infrastructure," he says. "So it's like you're standing in the river and the flood is coming, and instead of getting out of the river, you just roll up your pant legs, or hike up your skirt."

Besides Long Beach, other parts of the New York area were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, including lower Manhattan. Damages, including lost economic activity, were estimated at close to $20 billion.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg set up a task force to look at how the city could better protect itself from a rising sea level and increasing storm events linked to climate change. Seth Pinsky, who ran that task force and is now executive vice president of RXR Realty, agrees that certain parts of Manhattan are vulnerable during storms.

But Pinsky says retreating is not an option.

"We're dealing with 400 years of settlement here in New York City," he says. "In New York today, we have 70,000 buildings — representing over 500 million square feet of built area — that are in our 100-year flood plain. The idea that we're going to be able relocate those people, their jobs, their homes, that built infrastructure in any foreseeable future is just not realistic."

An Expensive Precedent

People like Charlie Minch love the beach and the new boardwalk. He drives here a couple times a week with his sister, Carol Halmy.

"It's nice," Minch says. "The boardwalk itself is nice. And it gives me something to do."

His sister says it's "certainly worth the money they put into it."

But geologist Rob Young says that sooner or later the money it takes to rebuild coastal areas — storm after storm — isn't going to be worth it anymore. Making that case to the people who live here, though, will be difficult.

"Any discussion of changing the way we do business at the coast and potentially not rebuilding some areas makes local residents nervous," Young says. "The issue is how long into the future can we afford as a nation to hold every shoreline — on East Coast to the Gulf Coast and the West Coast — in place."

Last week, the Department of the Interior released $162 million for research and restoration to protect the Atlantic Coast. The money will go to 45 projects, from Maine to North Carolina. Such funding sets an expensive precedent, Young says.

"If we have a big storm that hits Florida now, they are going to expect the same," he says. "They are going to expect the federal government to come in and rebuild beaches from Miami to Jacksonville. Can we afford to do that?"

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. A year ago this Tuesday, Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, devastating shoreline communities from Florida to Maine. Many of these areas have been rebuilt, including the Long Beach boardwalk, about 30 miles outside New York City.

JACK VANDERBECK: I missed it last winter. I really missed it.

ROSEANNE VANDERBECK: But it's really beautiful. They really did a great job.

MARTIN: This is Jack and Roseanne Vanderbeck. They come here every weekend to power walk along the beach.

VANDERBECK: The old boardwalk was actually getting beat up a lot. This is much easier to walk on. People now don't get splinters.

MARTIN: The city of Long Beach rebuilt the boardwalk and officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony just this past Friday. Ninety percent of the funding for the restoration came from the federal government. FEMA paid $44 million to repair the devastation.

ROB YOUNG: It was a little bit of a strange sight. Just the concrete pilings that the boardwalk sits on were remaining and the boardwalk was lifted off and thrown backwards onto the island.

MARTIN: This is Rob Young, a scientist from Western Carolina University who studies shorelines. He's one of the geologists out there who says American taxpayers are shelling out too much cash to rebuild coastal areas that are going to keep getting ravaged by the effects of climate change.

YOUNG: I don't think that we should be spending federal dollars to rebuild beaches after hurricanes.

MARTIN: At all?

YOUNG: At all. After storms, the federal government creates this moral hazard, in my opinion. We spend billions of dollars rebuilding coastal communities - a lot of it in place. Maybe we raise up a few structures, maybe we require a couple of changes, but basically we put everything back where it was. And the local communities have very little skin in the game. I mean, where we are standing right now is going to be hit by a big storm again someday. And we're told that we do this because the coastal economy is worth so much money. That's the argument.

MARTIN: We're looking right now at all kinds of residential and businesses that presumably depend on this kind of coastal economy.

YOUNG: Absolutely. And if the coastal economy is that strong and vibrant, why can't they pay for the risk of being here themselves?

MARTIN: So, that's one part of his argument. Federal dollars are being wasted rebuilding these vulnerable areas but Young goes even further, suggesting that some of these places should just be abandoned altogether because climate change is eating away at our nation's shorelines.

YOUNG: And right now the primary response post-Sandy has been to elevate some homes and elevate some infrastructure. So, it's like you're standing in the river and the flood is coming, and instead of getting out of the river you just roll up your pants legs, or hike up your skirt. We think that there are certainly part of the coast where we should get out of the river.

MARTIN: Besides Long beach, other parts of the New York area were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, including lower Manhattan. Damages, including lost economic activity, were estimated at close to $20 billion. Mayor Michael Bloomberg set up a task force to look at how the city could better protect itself from a rising sea level and increasing storm events linked to climate change. Seth Pinsky ran that task force. And he agrees, there are certain parts of Manhattan that are really vulnerable during storms but he says retreating is not an option.

SETH PINSKY: We're dealing with 400 years of settlement here in New York City. And in New York today we have 70,000 buildings representing over 500 million square feet of built area that are in our 100-year flood plain. The idea that we're going to be able relocate those people, their jobs, their homes, that built infrastructure in any foreseeable future is just not realistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

MARTIN: We're back on the boardwalk in Long Beach, outside New York, where Charlie Minch and his sister Carol Halmy are enjoying their regular walk. What's it like to have this restored as part of your weekly routine?

CHARLIE MINCH: The boardwalk itself is nice. And it gives me something to do.

CAROL HALMY: It's certainly worth the money they put into it.

MARTIN: But Rob Young tells me sooner or later the money it takes to rebuild coastal areas, storm after storm, isn't going to be worth it anymore. Making that case to the people who live here, though, is a different story. How do you tell someone who has run a business or lived in one of these communities for generations that actually we're not going to rebuild your beach after the storm. It's not a good idea.

YOUNG: You are right, any discussion of changing the way we do business at the coast and potentially not rebuilding some of the areas makes local residents nervous. The issue is how long into the future can we afford as a nation to hold every shoreline on the East Coast, the Gulf Coast and the West Coast in place. That is the issue. Because you see what's happening in New Jersey and New York. If we have a big storm that hits Florida now they're going to expect the same. They're going to expect the federal government to come in and rebuild beaches from Miami to Jacksonville. And can we afford to do that?

MARTIN: This past week, the Department of the Interior announced $162 million in funding for research and restoration to protect the Atlantic Coast. The money would go to 45 projects from Maine to North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.