Sunday, December 02, 2012

Is "Retreat" from Risky Coastal Areas the Answer?

NOAA GOES-13 image of Sandy at 6:02 a.m. EDT Tuesday (Oct. 30).

"New York and New Jersey residents, just coming to grips with the enormous costs of repairing homes damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, will soon face another financial blow: soaring flood insurance rates and heightened standards for rebuilding that threaten to make seaside living, once and for all, a luxury only the wealthy can afford." New York Times

We know that coastal communities are high risk locations.

Over many centuries coastal settlements and infrastructure has come under threat from storms and from storm surge.

The death toll was estimated between 8,000-12,000in a category 4 hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. There was no warning system, and while people left the barrier island and resort most thought it was just a big thunderstorm. This deadliest hurricane in American history. So many people died that, "Funeral pyres were set up wherever the dead were found and burned for weeks after the storm. The authorities passed out free whiskey to sustain the distraught men conscripted for the gruesome work of collecting and burning the dead." Olafson, Steve (August 28, 2000). "Unimaginable devastation: Deadly storm came with little warning". Houston Chronicle.

'The Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 was enormous. "As the category 4 hurricane moved inland, the strong winds piled the water up at the south end of the lake, ultimately topping the levee and rushing out onto the fertile land. Thousands of people, mostly non-white migrant farm workers, drowned as water several feet deep spread over an area approximately 6 miles deep and 75 miles long around the south end of the lake," according to the NOAA history of this event. The memorial report continues, "the effect of the flood was devastating, and the loss of life, both human and animal, was apocalyptic. Damages from this hurricane were estimated around 25 million dollars which, normalized for population, wealth, and inflation, would be around 16 billion dollars today (Landsea, 2002)."

Of course Katrina is the hurricane that grabbed all of our attention. On August 29, 2005, this category 5 storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf States with devastating impact on the city and its residents. Katrina took roughly 1,833 lives and cost $60 billion in insured losses (including flood damage) and cost the Gulf Coast states as a whole plus or minus $125 billion.

The so-called "Superstorm" Sandy on October 29, 2012 curved north-northwest and moved ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was not called a "hurricane" anymore but instead designated as a "post-tropical cyclone" albeit with hurricane-force winds. After causing damage and deaths in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas it became a surprising and astonishing monster. Sandy affected 24 states as far as Wisconsin, killed roughly 131 people and cost roughly $71 billion in the latest estimates although I believe that's low. It flooded New York City tunnels and parts of the subway system for the first time  in history.

One of the suggestions made by several of our colleagues is to "retreat" from the beach, from barrier islands, and from dangerous coastal areas.

The question for you is this. "Is retreat from the coast a realistic solution?"

When you look at the long span of history of the American coastal zones storms with their wind, rain, and brutal storm surge have been a reality of living, building, and doing business on the coast.

You need to do this exercise. Examine all of the cities, roads, bridges, private homes, resorts, railroad tracks, airports (think La Guardia), ports, military bases, subways, power stations, factories, shopping malls, casinos, condos, gas stations, and other facilities that are now on the coast.

Now calculate: From the tip of Texas to Main how much would it cost and where would you move all of these people and infrastructure?

Finally, answer this question: How much retreat is realistic and how would policymakers implement it as a federal and state policy?



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