Yet despite this, have we understood — and will we take actions to mitigate or avoid — the perilous consequences of continuing risky real estate behavior?
Almost every property-owning hurricane victim interviewed since Sandy struck has vowed to rebuild. Psychologically, this is understandable. To be near and, better yet, to abut and overlook the ocean has great aesthetic appeal. Seasides have long been among the most favored places for vacations and diverse forms of recreation. The economic value of most oceanfront property is typically much higher than property inland.
Yet rebuilding in the same places and the same ways will be a greater gamble than before. Placing buildings on low-lying coastal land, or next to sand dunes and Atlantic Ocean beaches, is always a risk. But having done so, the risk is magnified when these buildings are unable to safely withstand forces delivered by severe storms and storm surges, hurricanes, tsunamis or earthquakes.
Suppose flood-prone coastal landscapes were still undeveloped. Today permits to build on such landscapes would be denied in light of advanced earth science research and knowledge coupled with national environmental policies and state and local land use standards. Settling parts of New Orleans or the DelMarVa Peninsula likewise would not happen. Las Vegas, sited in a desert where rainfall and surface water are scarce, probably would never get built today.
Beyond promising to rebuild homes, some have talked about the feasibility of building new flood prevention and control systems and structures to protect New Jersey and New York shoreline communities. After all, the Dutch living at sea level are able to cope with the North Sea’s chronic flooding threats to the Netherlands (which means low country). But Holland’s elaborate system of breakwaters, dikes, canals and channels, floodgates, lakes and water diversion structures took centuries and billions of dollars to build.
The cost of building structures anew to adequately protect America’s inhabited east coast barrier islands, peninsulas and floodable mainland properties would be a daunting engineering task. It would cost trillions, not billions, and would take decades to implement. Even then, it would not reduce disaster probability to zero.
What would be a rational policy to reasonably reduce risks?
First, stop building on the Atlantic coast’s most vulnerable, unstable, environmentally sensitive land. Further, people owning properties on such land should be encouraged to relocate and should be compensated fairly to do so, which would probably cost less than constructing immense, regionally scaled, unattractive structures to combat nature.