Jersey Girl ‘Cause down the shore everything’s all right, You and your baby on a Saturday night….

Posted on December 23, 2019 by Virginia C. Robbins

These lyrics from the Jersey Girl tune on Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single echo the summers of his youth spent at the New Jersey shore.  I was reminded of Springsteen while reading the book “The Geography of Risk, Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Gilbert M. Gaul, that was published earlier this year.  Gaul’s book makes clear that today everything is definitely not all right at the shore.

Gaul’s well-researched and engaging book presents, among others, the cautionary tale of development and post-storm restoration on Long Beach Island, a barrier island located midway along the 141-mile-long New Jersey coast. Gaul introduces us to an industrious New Jersey character, Morris Shapiro, a Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1899. In 1926 Shapiro bought 53 acres on Long Beach Island between the ocean and the bay. Over time, Shapiro, his sons, and others built thousands of small summer homes on Long Beach Island and along the bay coast behind the barrier island. These modest homes were not built for the wealthy, but for teachers, postal employees, and auto assembly workers in a nearby Ford plant. If a storm knocked one of the tiny houses down, it would be replaced with another small cottage.

By 1962 there were 5,361 homes on Long Beach Island. The tax base from this development allowed the local communities to flourish. On March 6, 1962, a mega-storm known as the Ash Wednesday Nor’easter obliterated much of the island. One thousand homes were severely impaired and 600 were destroyed. The storm caused $2 billion in damage in today’s dollars. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, rather than giving serious consideration to whether reconstruction in such a vulnerable location would be prudent and sustainable, town leaders wanted to know how quickly the homes could be rebuilt in time for Memorial Day weekend.

At the time, New Jersey’s Governor Hughes tried to slow down the redevelopment by proposing a 6-month moratorium on new building while a plan for protecting the coast was prepared. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed with the governor and suggested a 50-foot wide buffer along the barrier island to protect its sand dunes. But the beach-town mayors and other politicians would have none of this. They were focused on the economic disaster that would occur if the shore were not up and operating by the summer season.

Gaul says his book, in part, is a meditation on the question of risk: How much should be private; how much public? He states that the cost of storm damage that was once borne by beach towns and homeowners is now largely paid for by federal taxpayers. In the 1950s, the federal government paid for 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding after hurricanes. Today it covers 70 percent, or in some cases 100 percent. Federal government subsidies created a moral hazard by encouraging development and reconstruction in fragile coastal ecosystems not only in New Jersey, but also in North and South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. Gaul’s narrative includes insights on the political and business leaders in these states whose economic and political interests encourage reconstruction after storm events. In contrast, Gaul speaks with Duke’s Emeritus Professor of coastal geology, Orrin Pilkey, who describes the relentless development along our shores as “madness and hubris of unbelievable proportions.”

The author describes the hurricanes that have recently devastated the U.S. coast and how U.S. taxpayers living far from the coastline pay for federal programs that grant disaster relief, issue flood insurance and pay claims, and recreate beaches. Gaul explains that by law federal flood insurance premiums are not based on an assessment of the risks associated with the location of a particular insured property, but rather on national blended averages that overstate the risk for some inland homes and understate it for coastal homes. This makes little sense given that, since 2000, the federal program has paid more than $45 billion in claims for coastal floods, and many of these for second homes, but only $5 billion for all other types of floods. The federal flood insurance program is underfunded and owes the U.S. Treasury about $24 billion.

Gaul calls the failure to slow unrestricted coastal building one of the most costly and damaging planning failures in our history with about $3 trillion worth of property now at risk. To create resiliency to protect this property, there are funding demands being made now for extraordinarily expensive infrastructure projects: $20 billion to protect New York Harbor and lower Manhattan; and $61 billion for the coast of Texas, including Galveston and the Houston Ship Channel. But can we ever build enough surge gates, barriers and levees to protect our cities and industries in coastal areas or will the water win in the end? This book suggests that we have no choice but to attempt to protect the heavily developed and valuable properties in coastal areas. At the same time, we should consider a more equitable way of charging for the resiliency projects, rather than simply passing all the costs on to taxpayers.

What impact will this book have? It should prompt serious public debate and action at the local, state and federal levels to restore natural resiliency along our coasts, but I doubt it will. The history of government funding of reconstruction in fragile coastal ecosystems over the past 60 years leads me to believe that the forces profiting from the current policy are far stronger than wrecking-ball rain and wind. To avoid economic disaster, I believe coastal communities will continue their infrastructure resiliency efforts using local, state and federal funds (raising roads, elevating homes, constructing better bridges). That might be acceptable if we devise an equitable way of allocating the costs of these projects in large measure to those who benefit most from them. But sadly, this approach ignores any land ethic, as in the words of Aldo Leopold from his A Sand County Almanac: The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.

There are communities that appear to be reaching a sustainability breaking point because of rising sea levels. One example is the barrier island of Ocracoke, NC, at three feet above sea level. Hit hard by Hurricane Dorian, some residents retreated after being traumatized by rising flood waters. In a November 9, 2019 article about Dorian’s impact to Ocracoke, The Washington Post reported that local and state officials are committed to rebuilding the island even though they recognize that long-term recovery does not appear sustainable. Orrin Pilkey is right – madness and hubris.

500-Year Flood, Last Straw, or Asteroid Strike? Metaphorically Testing the Resilience of Environmental Law.

Posted on August 28, 2018 by JB Ruhl

Regardless of your politics, it’s hard not to describe the environmental policies of Trump Administration as…very different. Indeed, that’s exactly what his supporters want and his opponents fear. But the question is how much different. Enough, I would say, to test the resilience of environmental law.

With origins in ecology, resilience theory has swept into the social sciences as a way of thinking about how social systems withstand forces of change, especially extreme events like the so-called 500-year flood—the flood so big it is expected on average only once every five hundred years. It’s now common to read commentary and proposals on how to build resilience of cities to natural disasters, resilience of corporations to consumer crises, and resilience of the financial system to economic shocks. Well, as I have suggested previously, legal systems are social systems, and they have either enough or not enough resilience to bounce back from extreme “pulse” disturbance events or from a long onslaught of less intense “press” events. If they don’t have enough then, just like an ecosystem experiencing desertification after prolonged drought, a legal system could experience a regime shift and look nothing like its former self on the other side.

One thing that’s entirely apparent now is that, after 35 years of arguing and name calling in environmental law between the “left” and the “right,” we’ve been playing between the 40-yard lines after all. We see that because there’s a new team in town, and they are trying to set up their offense on the 10-yard line, first-and-goal. But I shift metaphors. Back to resilience, and floods, though I may come back to football.

Had any other Republican who threw his or her hat into the ring back in early 2016 been the nominee instead of Donald Trump and won the White House, we’d all have expected “disturbance” events of some magnitude—some pushback on the Clean Power Plan, some softening on climate change policy, some pull-back on the WOTUS rule. Democrats would have waved arms and sounded alarms. But really, in retrospect it would have been just a bunch of 25-year floods and a rare 100-year flood here and there. Then a Democrat would eventually take over and we’d have more of the same in the opposite direction, with role reversal. Hey, that’s politics (or it was politics). The bottom line is that 45 years after the environmental law statutory big-bang of the early 1970s, all these disturbance events added up have never swamped environmental law as we have known it—the laws and agencies are still there, plugging away, albeit it with different playbooks (football again) from administration to administration. In short, environmental law had resilience to spare!

The Trump Administration, at the very least, is a 500-year flood—it’s intended to be that or more. 500 years is a long time, but 500-year floods happen. The smug complacency of the previous paragraph missed one little problem: when a 500-year “pulse” event flood comes along after decades of continuous lesser-magnitude “press” disturbances, it’s possible the resilience reserve just isn’t enough to stave off the assault and prevent a regime shift. Maybe it can, but maybe this 500-year flood is the last straw. And then there’s also the possibility that the Trump Administration is more like an asteroid strike—you know, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Even when the resilience reserve after a long press assault is at three-quarters, that’s a challenge. As in, no way.

So which is it: a 500-year flood environmental law can withstand, the last straw, or an asteroid strike? Everyone has his or her own positions, and I’m not (in this post) trying to tell anyone what they should hope for. Rather, stepping back from the political fray, what’s the evidence? Here’s my take.

First, I don’t think this is an asteroid strike. Those happen fast, and are unequivocal impact events. For environmental law, that would mean something like we wake up one day and there is no Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and so on—they went the way of the dinosaurs. There is no evidence that is in the cards, even if it were in the plans. The fact is that our governance system, notwithstanding the critiques, makes it immensely difficult for any new administration, regardless of its agenda and mandate, to accomplish an asteroid strike on environmental or any other field of law. Power is too dispersed, procedures are enforced, courts step in, the public pushes back, election cycles are short, politics can turn to molasses, and so on. Notwithstanding all the hype from both sides, the Trump Administration so far has not proven to be that big of an event. Arguably, though, asteroid strikes have happened in our not too distant past—the Great Depression and WWII were impact events that threw our entire governance system into a regime shift, leading to the dawn of the regulatory state. Were an external global event of that magnitude and threat to occur, its combined effect with the Trump Administration’s agenda could be a very hard blow indeed.

Rather, the evidence thus far is that the Trump Administration, for environmental law and many other fields, looks like a 500-year flood.  It has pushed really hard on all those resilience mechanisms just mentioned, but they are pushing really hard back. And I don’t see it getting near the last straw. I follow the Endangered Species Act very closely from a centrist position—I am no starry-eyed fan or red-eyed critic—and I from what I observe there is zero chance of it going away. But there is a 100 percent chance it will experience broad and deep regulatory and policy reform—it’s well underway already—and perhaps some legislative tinkering. This almost surely will be an outlier disturbance event, like a 500-year flood, and may deplete the resilience reserve more than usual, but it will not wipe it out.  As for other corners of environmental law, I leave that to their respective experts, but my sense is that it is largely the same story.

Again, I’ve tried not to imprint my own politics onto this analysis. Like an ecologist studying an ecosystem under disturbance, I’m simply asking, how big a disturbance to environmental law are the policies of the Trump Administration? We all agree they are big and intended to be so. But ten years from now, will we be playing between the ten, twenty, thirty, or forty yard lines on the football field, or will we be playing soccer on the pitch? I guess only time will tell, but I’m sticking with my seats on the 50-yard line for now.