In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, will we recognize how imprudent we have been about where we build and how we build, especially knowing that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of destructive natural events at the ocean’s edge?
Hurricane Sandy brought tragic, costly devastation to barrier islands and coastal portions of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, and to a lesser extent the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Countless homes, apartment buildings, hotels, retail businesses and infrastructure were damaged or destroyed. Shorelines and beaches were shifted.
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.
Second, amend building codes to ensure that buildings in coastal areas suffer minimal damage when subjected to hurricane-force winds, storm surges and severe flooding. This would increase construction costs but again would be less expensive than spending billions on elaborate systems to keep nature at bay.
This latter strategy is suggested by nightly news images of wood-frame houses thoroughly torn apart because of Sandy. Roof trusses, floor joists, siding and sheathing, exterior walls and interior partitions have been reduced to giant piles of debris composed of deformed and fractured plywood panels, broken and splintered two-by-fours, shredded wood trim and heaps of crumbled masonry.
These images were reminders about how often Europeans have expressed to me their puzzlement about what they perceive to be flimsy, conventional American home construction. Many old and new buildings in Europe, large and small, are built more robustly using structural materials intended to last for centuries.
Fortunately, in many places in the United States, building codes have been beefed up to make sure that new or rebuilt buildings are more robust to better cope with nature’s unwanted surprises.
For example, in Vero Beach, Fla., I designed a four-story luxury apartment building near the ocean for which the then updated code required habitable spaces and all electro-mechanical equipment to be above expected flood elevation. Only parking was at ground level. To make the building transparent to floodwater, hydrostatic and hydrodynamic vents had to be inserted in all masonry walls every few feet just above grade to allow water to freely pass through the building. And although only four stories high, the building’s structural skeleton was reinforced concrete and steel, not wood. Moreover, all structural connections, especially those holding the roof down, had to be hurricane-proof.
East coast states and their citizens should prudently heed Sandy’s cruel lessons. They should take steps soon to prevent devastation, comparable to what Sandy wrought, when the next perfect storm materializes.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.