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The huge, hidden cost of protecting homeowners from the rising sea

Wave-damaged homes on North Carolina's Outer Banks. (Nikki Kahn/Washington Post)

As sea levels rise, as much as $1.4 trillion worth of coastal property could be threatened with flooding by 2100, by one estimate. But what will it cost to protect those properties? Now comes a hint at the enormous pricetag.

According to a new study by the Virginia environmental group Wetlands Watch, flood damage in Norfolk is already on the rise, with the number of “repetitive loss” properties in the city skyrocketing from 200 in 2002 to 900 today, a 450 percent increase.

But money to protect those homes from future flooding has been hard to come by. According to the report, hundreds of homeowners are stranded on waiting lists for federal help to elevate or sell their flood-prone homes.

Because lists of “repetitive loss” properties are maintained by cities and counties, rather than federal authorities, Wetlands Watch had a hard time getting comprehensive data. But where numbers were available -- in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Hampton and Portsmouth – Wetlands Watch found nearly 3,000 properties awaiting funding. Local flood managers told the group it costs between $75,000 and $250,000 either to raise a home and protect it from the tides, or to acquire it so the homeowner can move out. Which means that in just five Virginia jurisdictions, the study says, it would cost more than $430 million to protect the homes that have already been damaged.

And that’s just “repetitive loss” properties, a specific category of homes insured by the National Flood Insurance Program that have sustained at least $1,000 in damage twice in a 10-year period. Many more homes are not covered by flood insurance. And many additional homes are likely to sustain damage in the future, if the seas rise, as predicted, by a meter or more on the East Coast over the next century.

“If in five cities, it’s in the neighborhood of $430 million, what is it nationally? Are we talking Iraq War-scale here?” said Skip Stiles, Wetlands Watch executive director.

Just as troubling, Stiles said, is how long it might take to help those people. Flood mitigation projects are typically undertaken with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So Wetlands Watch looked at the average annual disbursement of FEMA funds in each jurisdiction.

Given the current flow of cash, the study found, it would take 130 years to clear all the pending requests for help in Chesapeake, and 188 years in Norfolk. And in Virginia Beach, it would take 244 years to help all 561 homeowners who have so far asked for help.

“These numbers … point to a very troubling situation wherein many hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars are needed just to meet today’s flooding remediation needs along Virginia’s tidal reaches,” the report says. “They reveal thousands of households placed in line for help only to wait decades or centuries for relief.” And, the report says, “these figures will only get larger as a result of sea level rise, with increases in the frequency of damaging flooding events further increasing the number of structures in flood-prone areas needing remediation.”

Instead of waiting centuries for FEMA, Wetlands Watch is looking to the state of Virginia for help “to immediately increase mitigation and adaptation funding, maintain current property tax values, avoid disruption of real estate values, and create jobs.” The report proposes an array of innovative solutions, from a publicly financed revolving loan fund to mortgages designed to accommodate the costs of flood mitigation.

“Our contention," Stiles said, "is you can probably find other monies to do this.”