In North Carolina, the legislature voted this year to prohibit any regulations related to sea-level rise or global warming along the state’s coast before 2016. John Dorman, who as director of the Geospatial and Technology Management Office agency helps the state identify hazard risks, said the lack of political agreement has complicated his task: using a $5 million federal grant to study the impact of a rise in sea levels.
Dorman initially based his study on the assumption that sea levels could rise by nearly three feet by 2100, but scaled it back to 15.7 inches after objections from state and local residents who were concerned about the analysis’s economic impact. “What I need is someone to say, ‘John, this is what everyone agrees upon,’ ” he said.
Last year, Titus, the sea-level expert, wrote for the Environmental Protection Agency the first-ever plan that advises coastal areas to stop trying to hold back water. He said a rise in sea levels is unstoppable, and will be a fact of life in about 70 years.
He offered three suggestions for planners: retreat from the coasts, giving landowners money as an incentive to leave; continue building dikes that cost about $35 million per mile, according to one expert; or let landowners stay in projected flood areas as long as they want, but make clear that they will be on their own when the waters rise.
Maryland officials have conducted a comprehensive sea-level-rise analysis, and are pushing to redirect development. Zoe Johnson, program manager for climate change policy at the state Department of Natural Resources, said Maryland wants to avoid building “in areas that are the most vulnerable.”
Preparation and prevention
Johnson is skeptical of big engineering proposals — such as a dam at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay — to ward off disasters. She favors using natural defenses, as does the Nature Conservancy, which has helped restore the beach and meadows at New Jersey’s South Cape May Meadow. While Sandy made landfall near the preserve, the area fared much better than other parts of the state, just as it did during Hurricane Irene.
Forty years ago, Providence, R. I., took a different path, building the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier to protect the city from floods. Constructed in 1966 after a major hurricane, the barrier’s 25-foot wall and gates control storm surges in Narragansett Bay.
“It’s 10 feet higher than the worse-case scenario,” said Pete Gaynor, director of emergency management and homeland security for Providence. “I’m more than confident that the barrier would protect the city. It would have to be the storm of the century to overcome the barrier system.”
To protect New York, Malcolm J. Bowman, professor of oceanography for the State University of New York at Stony Brook, envisions a storm barrier on a much grander scale. But Bowman isn’t sure the barrier he has worked on and promoted since 2004 — which would cost between $3 billion and $6 billion — will ever be built.