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.