Aleck Loker, Writer

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Hurricane Sandy, Global Warming and Public Policy

Posted by Aleck Loker on November 12, 2012 at 3:50 PM

This essay is not about the cause of global warming or whether global warming has increased the severity of recent storms such as hurricane Sandy. It’s about the reality that sea level throughout the world has been rising for about 20,000 years--since the last Ice Age--and will continue for the foreseeable future. In the mid-Atlantic region, sea level has risen faster than anticipated due to the subsiding of the eastern edge of the continental plate. The latest prediction is that the sea level will rise another 5 feet by the end of this century. That’s nearly equal to the storm surge that destroyed much of the New Jersey coast and flooded New York City during Sandy.

Couple the rise of sea level with the impermanence of the barrier islands off the east coast of North America and consider what should be done in that vulnerable area. The Jersey shore, the beaches of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas are susceptible to storm surges and tidal erosion. One historical point drives this home: the Outer Banks of North Carolina are one mile closer to the mainland now than they were in 1584 when English explorers first mapped that region. Barrier islands built of sand are constantly migrating with new inlets opening and old inlets closing.

Although we must help those who have been devastated by the storm damage caused along the Atlantic shore by hurricane Sandy, we need to change our public policy with regard to future building in that fragile and impermanent location. We should not prohibit those who can afford to put their fortunes at risk by building homes or hotels on the impermanent shore from doing so. However, we should not enable them to do so at public expense. We should not allow local, state or federal funds to be used to underwrite privately-funded rebuilding in these flood prone and unstable zones. That includes spending public funds on beach restoration or stabilization projects.

If private insurance underwriters want to assume the risk for paying to repair or replace the damaged structures along our shores, that might seem to be none of our business. However, those same insurance companies insure homes and businesses built in areas not impacted by the clear and predictable risks associated with rising sea level and storm surges. Consequently, the costs of insurance premiums for all of us are affected to a degree by the policies written to protect those who build in the zones of highest risk.

We should recognize that occupation of barrier islands and fragile shores along the Atlantic no longer makes sense. Sea level will continue to rise, and heavily occupied mainland coastal areas must be protected from flooding. Let’s spend our public funds on protecting those areas where the most people live, mainland areas that cannot be easily abandoned. Let’s stop wasting public funds on protecting those fragile places that should not be developed: the barrier islands and low-lying beach areas.

 

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