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Sea-level rise is ‘the hidden threat’ for Anne Arundel waterfront homes

Joan Stansfield loves the homes she sells in Shady Side so much, she bought two for herself.

The Anne Arundel County town has become her escape from the bustle of Washington, where she practices real estate sales. She can watch the sunset on the Chesapeake and catch crabs off her dock.

“You get off Route 4 and it’s just like, ‘Phew.’ This boulder comes off your shoulders and the stress comes off. . . . It’s chill, raw rustic beauty,” she said.

Shady Side and southern Anne Arundel “are on fire with people buying. Prices are ramping up.”

But those dream homes could become a nightmare, according to scientists who say sea level rise is coming to flood homes and vital roads in areas such as Anne Arundel County. Stansfield didn’t know this because, like homeowners and real estate agents around the state, she wasn’t given information scientists say is vital to the future of homes like hers.

Real estate agents such as Stansfield use FEMA’s 100-year flood plain maps to determine whether homes are required to have flood insurance, which many interpret to mean they are safe from flooding. But climate scientists say FEMA’s maps shouldn’t be used to predict flooding.

Bill Sweet, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sea-level rise expert living in Annapolis, said that because FEMA only considers historical events when making its flood maps, they don’t take sea-level rise into account. “Past risk is not the best predictor of future risk,” Sweet said. “I think that’s sort of the hidden threat.”

Sea levels are even higher now than when FEMA’s Anne Arundel County maps were developed in 2015, he noted, and risks are only increasing. A storm with a one in 100 chance of occurring will have about a one in 10 chance by 2050, Sweet said.

“Flood risk is changing rapidly,” Sweet said. “We are trying to provide useful tools and products at NOAA to help, but they are not regulatory by any means.”

For now, Stansfield has flood insurance on both Shady Side homes even though it’s required for only one. But she doesn’t think about a future in which they might flood.

“I’m not a worrywart,” she said. “I’m not in fear of the land disappearing or anything like that. If it floods, it floods and we will do what we need to do and rebuild or what have you.”

Still, Sweet and other scientists say it’s not that simple and the time to start thinking about flooding is now.

'Where it can rain, it can flood'

Higher sea levels mean that deadly and destructive storm surges push farther inland, which also means more frequent nuisance flooding, according to NOAA. Precipitation from heavy storms has increased in the eastern United States by more than 25 percent since 1958, according to a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency report.

Scientists triple their estimates of the number of people threatened by rising seas

NOAA explains that sea-level rise is caused globally by emissions from human activity that warms oceans, causes water to expand and increases melting of glaciers and ice sheets. But sea-level rise does not increase at the same rate globally. In Anne Arundel County, for instance, sea-level rise is accelerating along its 530 miles of shoreline while the ground is also sinking.

Sea levels in Anne Arundel have been rising about an inch every seven years, according to an analysis by NOAA and the nonprofit news organization Climate Central. But no one can be sure what will happen, Sweet said, because sea-level rise doesn’t increase on a smooth trajectory.

No matter how fast it happens, Doug Myers, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist, said, sea level rise is not stopping — all we can do is brace for it.

“This is not a train you can stop on a dime. It is rushing ahead,” Myers said.

Maryland sellers are only required to specify whether their property is located in a FEMA flood zone, conservation area, wetland or Chesapeake Bay critical area. They don’t have to disclose to potential buyers whether there have been any flood damages to structures on the property or whether the home requires flood insurance.

While legislation to address the impact of sea-level rise on state and local projects was passed in 2018, all of its real estate disclosure sections were removed.

Maryland Realtors opposed a 2018 bill that required sea-level rise disclosure, arguing that the average home seller stays in a property for about 10 years and won’t see an impact.

“The purpose of disclosure is not to inform buyers of what could happen to a property at some future date when they no longer own the property, but to educate them about impacts that may affect their use and enjoyment of the property,” Maryland Realtors’ testimony against the bill says.

Bill Castelli, a lobbyist for Maryland Realtors, said he’s not against information to help property owners understand flood risks, but he is skeptical about where it comes from.

“We know the FEMA maps are accurate in what they project out and the mapping technology is pretty good,” Castelli said. “I would want to know how [other organizations] arrived at a projection 30 or 40 years from now and how that plays into that property.”

A report from the US Government Accountability Office on Flood Insurance described FEMA’s special flood hazard areas designation as “an ‘in or out’ line that unintentionally gives consumers the false perception that because they are not required to purchase flood coverage, they are not at risk of flooding and do not need the coverage.”

The report notes that while FEMA considers properties outside of hazard areas to be at low to moderate risk of flooding, they accounted for about 20 percent of National Flood Insurance Program claims from 2006 through 2015. The accountability office cited a 2006 study that found only about 1 percent of consumers outside hazard areas purchase flood insurance.

FEMA spokesman Gabe Lugo said the agency is working with some communities to identify future risk and plans to draw from organizations like NOAA to develop tools conveying future conditions like sea-level rise — but they won’t be regulatory like its flood plain maps.

“Flooding events do not follow lines on a map,” David Maurstad, head of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, added. “Where it can rain, it can flood.”

Report: High-tide flooding could happen ‘every other day’ by late this century

'The entire landscape is going underwater'

Residents in the Anne Arundel waterfront areas of Shady Side, Oyster Harbor and Selby-on-the-Bay say they think they’ll be dead by the time flooding renders their homes unlivable. Many of them lived through Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, a 100-year storm that left some residents thinking it would be the worst flooding event of their lives.

After Isabel, Tom Cagle in Oyster Harbor said flooding is “nothing you can’t live with,” even when roads around his house are sometimes under eight to 10 inches of water.

“People plow through it,” he said. “It might be an inconvenience for a few days of the year, but not enough to pull up stakes and leave.”

In Shady Side, Jim Foster watches the roads around his home flood at least once a month.

Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society in Washington, knows the flooding will only get worse. But he just can’t leave.

“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh gosh, I should sell while I still can or while the price is decent,’ ” Foster said.

“But I certainly do love watching the sunrise in the morning and watching the moon rise in the evening. Watching the boats go by and the birds. It’s a siren song. It’s hard to pull yourself away from it.”

Flood risk awareness is important for residents like Cagle and Foster, but Myers, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, warned it is even more vital for prospective homeowners who lack the tools to understand the future of their investment.

Shady Side agent John Tarpley holds no illusions about his town’s flood risk. But he’s hopeful knowing many of the town’s homes are still standing after 60 years.

“Isabel was the worst storm we’ve ever had,” he said. “If you made it through that — that was a 100 year flood — you’re going to be okay.”

But scientists like Myers say it’s only a matter of years before things won’t be okay and the town becomes an island.

“Shady Side will flood all over with the storm drain network before the actual shoreline,” Myers said. “The entire landscape is going underwater. That kind of situation, there’s not an engineering solution for. Those people are going to have to bug out.”

— Baltimore Sun