National Geographic News
 In this handout image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, homes are flooded after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline October 30, 2012 in Tuckerton, New Jersey.

Homes in Tuckerton, New Jersey, were flooded after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012. A new report says the U.S. is not ready for future storms.

Photograph by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published July 23, 2014

The U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are not ready for the increased flooding and stronger storms that are expected from climate change, scientists say.

The National Research Council report, released today, warns that the past few years have seen "a dramatic rise in coastal-storm-related losses" along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, thanks to an increase in population and a rise in the number of homes and other structures built in at-risk areas.

"There's a huge sense of urgency here," says Greg Baecher, one of the report's co-authors and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Read "Rising Seas" in National Geographic magazine.)

"Storms are getting more powerful, and the current scientific thinking is that's going to continue," he says. "We are not coordinated at different levels of government, and time is running out."

According to Richard A. Luettich, Jr., a professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and chair of the committee that wrote the report, it's time for the federal and state governments to work together more closely to reduce risk.

"There is a crucial need for collaboration among federal agencies and between the federal government and the states, as well as policy changes that will help us evolve from a nation that is primarily reactive to coastal disasters into one that invests wisely in risk reduction and resilience," he said in a statement.

Current planning for risks along the coasts is inadequate and has "no central leadership or unified vision," says the report, which had been commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Feds Paying Too Much

Today the federal government tends to bear the brunt of the costs after big disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but it wasn't always that way.

"The share of money paid by the federal taxpayer has increased substantially," says Baecher, noting that the federal government paid roughly 10 percent of reconstruction costs after hurricanes in the mid-20th century. But after Sandy, the feds ponied up about 75 percent of the costs.

Federal taxpayers are not always getting a good return on their investment, says the report. There has been too much spent on rebuilding and too little spent on planning, preparedness, and mitigation of risk along the coasts, leaving communities vulnerable.

"Every dollar spent before an event saves four to five dollars in reconstruction costs after," says Baecher.

Limiting Development?

In their report, the National Research Council advisers write that "in the past, most risk reduction projects have focused on fortification, with few efforts to limit redevelopment in high-risk areas and steer development toward safer, lower-risk areas."

Luettich calls this "a misalignment of risk, reward, resources, and responsibility" that has led to "inefficiencies and inappropriate incentives that ultimately increase coastal risk."

Specifically, developers build in hazardous areas because they can pass the risk on to homeowners and the federal government, through the flood insurance program, says Baecher. And state and local officials often look the other way because they benefit from the expanded tax base.

The committee "doesn't know what the magic bullet is" to fix the problem, says Baecher, but he hopes the report will stimulate discussion that leads to smarter coastal policy.

One possible solution would be to adjust the financing of coastal protection efforts like beach nourishment and seawalls. Currently, the federal government asks local governments to contribute a certain percentage to these projects. In the future, local governments that have taken steps to mitigate risk, such as restoring wetlands or raising structures, might receive credits that would reduce what they are asked to contribute.

The federal government could also develop a national plan for addressing risk along coasts, instead of relying on today's "piecemeal, project-by-project approaches," argues the report. The plan would integrate multiple federal agencies and would work closely with states and local authorities, recognizing that different areas have different needs.

"You're not going to be able to do a huge beach nourishment project in Manhattan—there isn't the real estate—but in Virginia that might be the most cost-effective solution," says Baecher.

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Liam L.
Liam L.

We are thereby left with the only possibility to somehow capture the heat energy and put it on the top of the energy pyramid again...

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

Humans rarely prepare for anything. They tend to believe Nanny Land will wave it's magic wand and all bad things will go away. People, who choose to live in areas of known danger, are responsible for their decisions. 

Anyone who believe the government or insurance will make up for the loss must still believe in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. Government burns through money making promises they will not keep. Insurance companies collect money, not pay claims. There is no claim they cannot avoid if they want to.

Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

Who lives on or near the coast? Rich folks who cry to the government when a tree flattens their new Mercedes! Folks with common sense live in the interior of the country, as to avoid problems from weather related activities, with the exception of "Tornado" alley. And if I lived out there, I would be thinking about relocation to a quieter part of the country! We are all at the hand of nature and no amount of planning is going to get around that!

Jack Getze
Jack Getze

Who says your tax dollars are replacing ANYthing? I live on the coast of Jersey flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Our neighborhood looked just like Tuckerton, and many houses all around me are still empty, still un-repaired, the owners living with relatives or moved away, broke. Their hotel stipend from FEMA or private insurance ended long ago. Nobody helped them rebuild because the hurricane turned into a tropical storm before it landed, and many insurance companies bailed. So did FEMA. Keep your money and tax dollars. You people sound like you need it for more education.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

The people driving the building on coasts and in areas subject to tidal surges and devastation by hurricanes are people with lots of money and who laugh when asked what will you do when you lose your house next hurricane. They say "The feds will rebuild for us."  Makes me and many others furious.  Stop building.  

Don't allow those monied ahs to run my and your tax dollars up to subsidizing their house replacements.  Insanity.  

Make all coastal areas marine reserves, let what comes comes and slowly but surely replace cities further inland.  Better make that quicker than never. 

Do NOT use tax dollars to help those people rebuild.  Tax dollars better start being used to rebuild bridges, roads, provide medical care to ALL people and help the disabled and, now, the newly poor and indigent, young and old.  

Yes, we have a stupid government.  Works well for the wealthy, however. 

Cj Mendoza
Cj Mendoza

It's already to late for anything. Everyone who is worried, just get over it.

Guy Vils
Guy Vils

Of course there is a "magic bullet", just stipulate that any property parcel can ever receive only one federal insurance payout, a full-value buyout. Paying to rebuild and then underwriting the proven risk is lunacy.

Rhedd Radisch
Rhedd Radisch

Love that product placement: "Noah"!

Also, find it galling that many of the rebuilt - at taxpayers' expense - houses have signs posted in their yards that read,

"Private Property

No Public Beach Access"!

Fra Rei
Fra Rei

The universe just doesn't give a fling fick about us.  Life goes on and these avoidable disasters occur whether man makes stupid decisions or is totally prepared.  Best use logic when deciding where to build a city.

Richard Ellmyer
Richard Ellmyer

Our federal government is totally dysfunctional. Climate change deniers are chairing our Science committees. "Cooperation" is NOT a word in use by governments led by fanatic ideologues.

Unless and until the federal government STOPS providing support for flood insurance in high risk coastal areas there is NO CHANCE of changing our polices from reactive to preventative. And there is NO CHANCE of that happening.

And so it goes.

Richard Ellmyer

Portland, Oregon

Phillip Lake
Phillip Lake

So, Do like China and allow only one child per family. Force people to quit building in risk areas or they cannot get insured, stop federal funding and lay it all on the homeowner, put Al Gore in charge of stopping nature by not allowing it to go through the natural phases it has always gone through; otherwise, just burn the houses down and kill the people and it will all go away. OH CRAP - that sounds like the BS and rhetoric of Socialism. TOO MANY PEOPLE and the earth is getting old and wearing down. Try asking God for help instead of man.

Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@Phillip Lake Actually, a much better solution is available: terminate Federally subsidized insurance. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize people who live in such places. Let these homeowners decide for themselves how to cope. The free market works quite well in a case like this. We just have to get the government out of the way.

Jeffrey S.
Jeffrey S.

@Chris Crawford @Phillip Lake  Hey there fellow. Keep fighting the good fight.

I live in NJ and my house is about as far away from the shore as you can get in NJ and my parents house is a good 60 miles from the shore. Both sustained damage from Sandy, my parents house, significant.

Most of the attention was given to the shoreline residence, why?We got hammered in the entire state. Most of the middle class hard working folk took the responsibility to get their lives back in order without a whisper of why isn't the government bailing us out.The answer is quite simple, shoreline residence, for the most part have the $ to cry foul.

This happens all over, example;

There is a small island off Charleston SC, "Sullivens island", it is squarely on the front line of, "Hurricane alley". At least 4 times,in my life time, houses on the beachfront have been swept away, or receive huge damage. Keep in mind, as of the last 30-40 years these houses are multi million $ homes. Now those people essentially are left to their own to rebuild. If they have hurricane insurance, (most do), they are paying ridiculous premiums. This is an example, as you state, where the, "Free market" works.

There is one caveat to this;

What about the rescue workers that risk their lives, (G-d bless them) and have got to come out there and save your butt, because you ignored the warnings. You wouldn't believe, (maybe you would), the number of people who stayed, (tried), in their homes,on or close to the shoreline with the intent to ride out the storm.

Be Well


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