Opinions

The coastal conundrum

Skip Stiles is executive director of Wetlands Watch, a nonprofit based in Norfolk, and was a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives for 22 years.

NORFOLK

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, pundits and academics with altitude are looking down on those of us in coastal communities, saying we need to move away from the shore. They talk about “depopulating” our shoreline as a rise in sea levels and stronger storms bring higher personal and financial risk.

Our present losses and future fortunes are becoming clearer with each passing storm, leaving coastal dwellers stranded somewhere between the clear, abstract logic of change and the emotional and economic forces that hold us in place.

Billions of dollars of investments, both business and personal, tie us to the shore. Walk away from all that we own and possess? Not yet. Not unless someone is willing to make us whole.

Armor and protect what we value? Who chooses, since there is not enough money to save us all?

Stop wasting money on causeways and strand roads to coastal towns? In the next state over maybe, but not in my own stretch of the shoreline, where tourists still flock to rent our beachfront homes.

As we start discussing a change in direction, we quickly encounter complications. There is no clear path forward, no strategy, no policy that bridges between today’s reality and a future that allows us to avoid devastation from the next Sandy. Worse, the messages constantly conflict.

At one end of the Commerce Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there is an obvious, present danger from flooding and a rise in sea levels. Other Commerce agencies — the ones with money, the ones that count — will fund any economic development project we want, regardless of elevation and future risk.

Across government, one agency advises, Don’t build near the shore, while other agencies underwrite beachfront mortgages, finance coastal infrastructure and give tax credits on tidewater development as if it were, well, yesterday.

Hurricane Katrina showed the dangers faced by low-lying, lower-income communities such as the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Today, years after Katrina’s lessons, the Department of Housing and Urban Development still funds lower-income housing anywhere along the shoreline, regardless of projections in sea-level rise.

Even the National Flood Insurance Program, the government-subsidized underwriter of coastal development, can’t pull the trigger; it is bound to continue insurance for risky structures because of congressionally mandated grandfathering.

As a result, localities that say no to coastal developers stand alone, inviting lawsuits from landowners who don’t want restrictions on developing their property.

Complicating things further, when local governments take steps to “depopulate” dangerous areas, they get taken to court anyway. Eight coastal homes in Nags Head, N.C., were damaged and condemned after a 2009 coastal storm brought the ocean underneath them. Three years and $1 million-plus in legal fees later, in a fight that has gone to the state Supreme Court, they still stand.

The environmental group I head, Wetlands Watch, has worked for more than six years to help shoreline communities adapt to the impact of rising sea levels. We have seen gradual shifts in attitudes as each storm comes higher and higher upon the land. We have seen ebbing resistance to change.

Unfortunately, we have not seen public policy lead this effort or even keep pace.

Our coastal communities are trapped, facing lawsuits if attempts are made either to block new development in risky areas or to remove older developments facing imminent hazards. Government agencies tell those of us who live and work along the shore to stop coastal development while offering money to build along the shore as if nothing has changed.

So, without clear legal authority, without support from state and federal government, without policies that illuminate the path out of this mess toward the future envisioned by pundits, we’ll stay put.

We’ll rebuild a little higher, pay more for insurance, speak more often at family gatherings about selling the house at the shore. But we’re in for one more cycle.

Sandy, like Katrina and Andrew, will be one of the storms that came before the storm that changed things in coastal America. Like those earlier storms, it has eroded resistance to change and has shifted thinking.

Sandy will not be the game-changer that many have called it, because we are not yet ready to change.

For current coastal policies, no, Sandy is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

 
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