Coastwide
Beach erosion at North Beach, Florida, after hurricane Irma

In era of climate change, federal government should do more than provide 'seawalls for everyone'

The federal government faces a dilemma over how to prepare the American coast for the rising seas and supercharged storms of a warming climate. These twin threats cost the government billions in disaster aid, while endangering communities, critical infrastructure and priceless ecosystems.

To date, the standard prescription for coastal flooding has been structural protection in the form of seawalls or beach nourishment. Unfortunately, the coastal flood problem gets bigger every year with no end in sight.

A policy of “seawalls for everyone” would be financially unsustainable, would raise challenging social justice concerns and would impose huge impacts on coastal ecosystems such as beaches and wetlands. The commonsense solution for the long term is to gradually step back from risky coastal places. However, most people living along the coast want to stay right where they are.  

Not surprisingly, faced with this dilemma, the federal government has fallen back on doing what it knows. In response to three major hurricanes in 2017, Congress provided over one hundred billion dollars in aid to communities.

Helping recover from major disasters is clearly a core function of the federal government. But the certainty of more massive stormsand rising seas should also prompt a rethinking of policies and programs to better prepare the country for these risks. Here are five places to start.

First, we need to treat coastal storms and rising sea level as a single problem. Planning for one risk without thinking about the other can lead to fragmentary and ineffective response strategies. For example, elevating buildings is a reasonable strategy when applied to the problem of temporary flooding from storms, but it fails when rising seas bring permanent inundation.

In addition, existing federal programs for flood insurance and disaster relief urgently need reform. The flood insurance program encourages people to stay in risky coastal places that will eventually be overtaken by rising seas. Disaster programs do a good job of providing relief after a storm but need to refocus on smarter investments to avoid disasters in the first place.

Some state and local governments are making progress in coping with coastal flood challenges, but the federal government should provide significant new funding for both planning and implementation. These plans need to reflect local needs and conditions but be guided by national frameworks. For example, states and communities need help to evaluate tradeoffs between structural protection (e.g., seawalls) and phased relocation of homes, businesses and infrastructure as seas rise.

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Jeff Peterson worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and White House Council on Environmental Quality and is author of “A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.”