An article Tuesday should have included the Great Lakes in noting that three out of every five Americans now reside within 50 miles of a coast.
The Carter administration is contemplating sizable cuts in programs that aid development of barrier islands like North Carolina's Outer Banks that are prone to hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Such familiar nearby vacation areas as Rehoboth Beach and Chincoteague, Va., could be affected, as could large island cities like Miami Beach and Galveston, Tex.
The proposal is in an Interior Department report that will be released next week for public comment, then go to President Carter for possible action. He has indicated some support for the idea, which is partly that the government ought not be in the business of subsidizing people who like to live dangerously.
But the idea is sure to be controversial; it would affect valuable land in every coastal state from Massachusetts to Texas. And the Interior report also suggests possible eventual withdrawal of federal aid for construction -- and post-catastrophe reconstruction -- in other disaster-prone areas, such as earthquake zones, landslide ranges and tornado corridors.
The government now boosts shoreline and offshore settlement with roads, sewage systems, bridges, erosion control, landfill and small business loans in 30 programs run by 20 different agencies. Federally subsidized flood insurance reassures settlers on the barrier islands. Federal disaster insurance leads to bigger and costlier rebuilding after hurricanes, major storms and floods.
But it has always been a losing battle. Nature has repeatedly demolished human traces on the sandy, narrow string of islands that constantly shift position just offshore. In addition, new research has found the islands themselves to be a valuable resource that can best be preserved if people leave them alone.
"We're not out to shut down development," said Ron W. Cooksy, leader of the team from Interior's Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service that wrote the Barrier Islands Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
"The federal role should be to make sure that the people there understand the hazards . . . and that the feds are not going to pick up the pieces when a natural disaster comes along and demolishes the place."
No immediate aid cutoff is contemplated by the report which will go to President Carter sometime in February. But each year of inaction on the problem, the study says, means that another 6,000 acres of barrier islands will disappear under houses and fast-food stands.
"Local governments and private individuals will not be discouraged from gambling at the general public's expense that there will be no future storms or storm damage in places they select for barrier island development," the study says.
Beachfront areas are growing now at more than twice the national rate, and population density is already four times that of the heartland, according to the Interior Department.
Three of every five Americans now live within 50 miles of salt water and it will be three in four by 1990. But 80 percent of those people have never seen a major hurricane, researchers say, and are unprepared for one like the 1900 storm that submerged the city of Galveston.
Cemeteries gave up their dead to make room, they say, for the 6,000 persons who died. It was the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States, but it was not as strong as Hurricane Camille that battered Pass Christian, Miss., with 170 mph winds in 1969.
Camille was the strongest yet and the worst in terms of damage, demolishing $1 billion in property and killing about 300 persons even though 81,000 moved to safer ground. Another storm like that today could do $1.5 billion to $2 billion damage in Florida alone, according to the Interior Department, because building codes and coastal defenses are inadequate.
"The consequences of a major hurricane hitting a heavily developed barrier island will be catastophic," the Heritage Service report states.
The study outlines three possible levels of federal action in the barrier islands. Continuing to do nothing is one option, but it would not only further endanger lives and property, but also threaten the islands' existence, the report says.
Grasses that hold the sand dunes together cannot survive vehicle traffic and bulldozers. Wave action continually moves sand up and down the beach, rolling the dunes inward during storms and bringing them back out in calmer periods.
Beaches rise and fall several feet in height as the waves alternately batter them or allow them to flatten, but man-made breakwaters and seawalls interfere with these processes. The very instability of the islands ensures their long-range survival, the report says.
Where big buildings go up, the beach dies. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend $65 million to dredge 14 million cubic yards of sand onto Miami Beach, where 300 feet of beachfront has washed away along a nine-mile stretch. The corps estimates that one-quarter of the nation's 100,000 miles of coastline is "significantly" eroded because of overbuilding.
A second federal option is to beef up enforcement of existing laws, fund laws that permit federal purchase or involvement, and refocus federal agency efforts toward discouraging rather than promoting development.
The report's authors appear to favor this approach. "Development is not stopped but is made to pay its own way" under this plan, the report states. "Projects not built . . . will, in the long run, save millions of dollars in disaster relief, reconstruction costs and erosion prevention."
Instead, there would be many more visitor parking and embarkation areas on the mainland near the islands. Corps of Engineers permits for dredging and filling would become much harder to get, building codes would be stiffened, federally subsidized flood insurance rates would depend more on stormwater calculations than on flatwater figures.
A third option would seek legislation to penalize development.
Some kinds of land sales would be prohibited, flood insurance would be denied in high-hazard areas and reconstruction after disasters would be prohibited. The study recognizes that this alternative "could have severe short-term adverse impact in localized areas. Substantial amounts of land would be removed from local tax rolls, future development possibilities curtailed and economic growth restricted on many of the islands."
Yet the Heritage Service recommended just this course to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a separate report two weeks ago on the situation in Alabama, where Hurricane Frederic did $1.5 billion in damage last September.
"They recommended that we would not fund any permanent reconstruction," said FEMA deputy director Thomas Casey. The Heritage proposal is under review but strong opposition has already developed from Alabama political leaders.
President Carter tried in a 1977 executive order to discourage growth in floodplain areas by asking the bureaucracy to avoid supporting it. But the Heritage study says that his order is ineffective without a clear requirement that decisions be made against growth.