Coastwide
The Geography of Risk | Gilbert M. Gaul | Macmillan

Taxpayers foot bill for risky coastal "McMansions," new book argues (With ASPN interview)

Book review: In “The Geography of Risk,” reporter Gilbert M. Gaul assesses the costs of beach overdevelopment -- and who pays for it Note: Listen to Gilbert Gaul on ASPN's Ship o Shore Podcast, hosted by Robert Frump; link at end of article.

Since 2000, hurricanes have inflicted an estimated $750 billion in damage on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts -- and in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, that total will rise. FEMA, the federal disaster agency, has paid out some $350 billion in hurricane-related aid in the past two decades.

Is this just a cost of life, or are we doing something wrong?

Gilbert M. Gaul argues that we are.

Gaul, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Polst, Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers, argues in “The Geography of Risk” that the federal government and states are effectively promoting risky behavior.

Through federally funded flood insurance, huge appropriations for beach nourishment projects, and generous, well-intended relief aid, government policy allows developers and wealthy investors to build huge houses and hotels on beachfronts and low-lying barrier islands at high risk from coastal flooding as well as hurricanes. Uncle Sam’s generosity makes it all possible.

As oceans rise, however, and hurricanes seem to grow stronger in a warming climate, however, the cost to taxpayers could soon become unsustainable.

Writing just as the extensive damage from Hurricane Florence became apparent, Gaul covers the waterfront, so to speak -- from Hurricane Katrina to South Florida, to the halls of Congress. In North Carolina, he stops Down East in Columbia, Creswell and other towns of North Carolina’s “Inner Banks,” where rising water levels and flooding are washing away entire communities.

His core exhibit, however, is Long Beach Island, an 18-mile barrier island on the southern New Jersey coast, whose history will sound familiar to folks on the Lower Cape Fear.

For decades, Long Beach Island was a windswept, isolated place, with a few shacks and hotels, where working class families from Philadelphia would take summer vacations.

After World War II, however, Long Beach Island saw a building boom, as eagle-eyed developers churned out street after street of Cape Cod-style cottages and bungalows for returning GIs and their Baby Boom kids. The state of New Jersey obliged by building roads and bridges.

Politically, the island was divided into a half-dozen small towns that seldom worked together, except to block cockeyed egg-headed notions of land use. People like “Big Jim” Mancini, a larger-than-life developer and mayor, saw themselves as building “family” resorts and even communities.

According to Gaul, things began to tip in the 1980s, when multistory “McMansions” began to supplant the simple Cape Cods. (A similar trend has transpired on the north end of our state’s Outer Banks). Disasters such as the Ash Wednesday flood of 1962 did little to discourage development. On the contrary, real estate dealers saw storms as “clearing the market,” blowing down older, ramshackle structures and making way for the new, bigger units that buyers seemed to want.

Real estate prices went up, and increasingly retirees and residents with modest incomes were squeezed out. But there were always more customers in line for resort property.

It was too good to last. Right before Halloween 2012, Hurricane Sandy took an unexpected turn and smashed into Long Beach Island and much of the Jersey Shore. Thousands of homes were flooded; damage to Long Beach Island alone was $700 million.

Gaul quotes experts such as Orren Pilkey, the venerable gadfly and retired Duke geologist, who argued that the smart thing to do would be to ban rebuilding in areas damaged by the storm surge. Sooner or later, another hurricane is going to come back. Instead, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the federal government pumped billions of dollars to rebuild and repair damage as fast as possible. Tax laws allowed generous writeoffs for storm damage.

As older beach residents were squeezed out by rising prices, Long Beach Island towns needed the revenues from second homes and rentals back as soon as possible to continue to function.

Gaul mentions a few possible reforms. Republican and Democratic administrations have considered putting a “deductible” on federal flood insurance, requiring states and property owners to pay so much before the spigot opens.

For the most part, however, he sees little impetus for change. It’s unclear how long inland taxpayers will be willing to foot the bill to keep rebuilding beachfront mansions and condos they can’t afford themselves.

Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-343-2208 or peacebsteelman@gmail.com.

See StarNewsOnline.com article . . .

Listen to Gilbert Gaul on ASPN's Ship o Shore Podcast, hosted by Robert Frump . . .