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Retreat from the Beach: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

(Image: Henning Wagenbreth/NYT)Soon after Sandy struck, an OpEd piece titled “We Need to Retreat from the Beach” by Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a pioneer in what’s now become the science of shoreline dynamics, appeared in the New York Times.

Dr. Pilkey wrote, “As ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms” with “surges…higher and ever more deadly….Yet there is already a push to rebuild homes close to the beach and bring back shorelines to where they were.” This “is the wrong approach to the increasing hazard of living close to the rising sea.” 


“We should not simply replace all lost property and infrastructure. Instead, we need to take account of rising sea levels, intensifying storms and continuing shoreline erosion,” he said.

Dr. Pilkey, co-author of the landmark work The Beaches Are Moving, wrote that “we should strongly discourage the reconstruction of destroyed or badly damaged beachfront homes…This is tough medicine, to be sure, and taxpayers may be forced to compensate homeowners. But it should save taxpayers money in the long run by ending this cyclc of repairing or rebuilding properties in the path of future storms.”

Now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in an extraordinary move for a politician considering the intense lobbying through the years by beachfront homeowners, is proposing to purchase structures wrecked by Sandy­at their pre-Sandy value­have them demolished and then preserve the flood-prone land permanently, as undeveloped coastline.

“The land would never be built on again. Some properties could be turned into dunes, wetlands or other natural buffers that would help protect coastal communities from ferocious storms; other parcels could be combined and turned into public parkland,” reported the Times in breaking the story as a Page One lead article.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/nyregion/cuomo-seeking-home-buyouts-in-flood-zones.html?pagewanted=all

In a follow-up editorial, the Times called the Cuomo concept “splendid” and stated that “buying damaged properties and returning them to their natural state, as Mr. Cuomo proposes, is one of the best ideas to come along."

But will good science and good sense come together when it comes to the shoreline?

It will be mighty difficult ­- but it very much needs to happen.

The problem: vested interest.  Many if not most of the folks who own beach houses­even ones left in shambles by Sandy and in highly vulnerable locations ­don’t want to give them up. I appreciate this. Visiting an old friend with a beach house a while back, gazing out a window and seeing the majestic Atlantic Ocean outside, I thought of the thrill of having a house on the sea. Sitting on his deck, the waves breaking below, was exciting.

Dr. Pilkey realizes this. “I understand the temptation to rebuild,” he wrote in his OpEd. “My parents’ retirement home, built at 13 feet above sea level, five blocks from the shoreline in Waveland, Miss., was flooded to the ceiling during Hurricane Camille in 1969. They rebuilt it, but the house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005."

An inquiry by the Long Island newspaper Newsday, to gauge sentiment towards the Cuomo plan, found the “overwhelming number of Island residents would rather rebuild than relocate."

The Army Corps of Engineers is another factor in what’s been a constant ­- after a big storm the dumping of sand (given the appealing term “beach nourishment”) on the coast,  sand often washed away in the next big storm, and otherwise taking on Mother Nature. The Corps is run by a combination of military officers and engineers who believe they can win any war including against nature. Also, coastal work keeps the Corps’ budget hefty. 

Then there’s the National Flood Insurance Program. After seeing a TV commercial promoting it recently, I requested a brochure. The government pamphlet began: “Since flooding typically isn’t covered under your homeowners insurance policy, the best way to protect your home is through the National Flood Insurance Program.” The reluctance of private insurance companies to cover homes built in the teeth of the ocean says a lot. The lobbying of beachfront homeowners was instrumental in getting Congress to provide this taxpayer-supported program.

Key to the situation is Dr. Pilkey’s observation way back: The Beaches Are Moving. They are in flux and need to be flexible to protect the mainland.  Add to this today’s rising sea levels and extreme weather caused by climate change.

Retreat might not be a good word to use for what needs to be done. It infers losing. Adjustment is a better word. We must adjust to the reality of our shifting shores.

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