Foundations on sand

Development: Along the barrier islands of the Atlantic coast, natural disasters are waiting for their moment.

April 02, 2000|By Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood | Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood,Knight Ridder /Tribune

Thirty-eight years ago this spring, the most devastating coastal storm in New Jersey history inundated Long Beach Island, drowning seven people, uprooting 600 houses and tearing the slender barrier island into six pieces.

Along the Eastern Seaboard, from North Carolina to New York, the great Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 killed 22 people, pounded 50,000 houses and left $1.3 billion in damage.

So shocking was the destruction that state and federal officials suggested the unthinkable: restoring the vulnerable shoreline to its natural state -- a buffer zone off-limits to risky development.

But no one listened.

Aided by generous disaster dollars, federal loans, and a grab bag of other taxpayer subsidies, beach towns built back bigger and closer than ever before.

Real estate barrier

Instead of a natural buffer, a barricade of pricey real estate now lines the nation's endangered coasts.

Today, Long Beach Island is crowded from dune to bay with vacation homes and investment properties worth nearly $5 billion. It is one piece of a building boom that has transformed the nation's shoreline from seaside hamlets to exclusive resorts worth an estimated $2 trillion.

The unchecked development of America's fragile coasts in the last half-century, a frenzy of building with little national forethought, has come at a hefty price.

The American dream of a house at the beach has turned into a taxpayer nightmare: billions of federal dollars to repair resorts damaged again and again. Billions more to monitor and fix environmental problems -- water pollution, unchecked runoff, leaky sewers, vanishing wetlands. And still billions more in decades to come in an endless struggle to guard beachfront real estate from rising seas and inevitable storms.

"These are not random acts of God," said Gregory E. van der Vink, who teaches a course on disasters at Princeton University. "It's only when people build in dangerous places that it becomes a natural disaster."

To accommodate this risky development, the government has been forced into odd and costly roles: The nation's disaster agency sells flood insurance. The Army pumps sand on beaches. And the Interior Department pays to clean out the toilets of pleasure boats. Through such policies, Washington lawmakers have painted themselves and the nation's taxpayers into an increasingly costly corner.

In New Jersey, where $34 billion of property lines the eroding coast from Sea Bright to Cape May Point, some state officials concede that efforts to control building have failed. "We had sprawl, sprawl, sprawl all over the place. There was no planning, really," said Judy Jengo, deputy commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection.

To defend all this investment, state and local officials have erected a Maginot Line of seawalls, groins, jetties, sandbags and underwater reefs extending the entire 109 miles of developed coast. It is the state's counterattack against erosion and the natural migration of barrier islands. Before development took hold, these vulnerable sandbars were reshaped and re-formed by storms and rising seas, without economic consequence.

New Jersey also is home to the nation's most expensive beachfill, a $1.5 billion federally funded project -- and officials in New Jersey and other states are lobbying for billions more for other shore projects.

Despite these costly and extraordinary efforts, taxpayer-funded disaster spending in coastal states is increasing dramatically. In the 1990s alone, more than $9 billion in federal disaster aid went to coastal areas, along with billions more in taxpayer-subsidized loans, flood payments and other assistance.

Often, the beneficiaries are seasonal vacation resorts where storms and flooding are as common as snow in Buffalo. Yet under the government's generous rules, man-made disasters are treated the same as natural disasters such as Hurricane Floyd that devastate inland towns where people live and work year-round.

Even modest storms can unleash a flood tide of taxpayer relief. The government has committed billions for roads, utilities, water systems, business loans, landscaping, ball fields, golf courses, marinas and Christmas decorations. It also picks up part of the bill when coastal resorts are forced to evacuate -- whether a storm hits or not.

More than ever, the densely developed U.S. coastline stands at risk from rising sea levels, eroding beaches, and a growing number of destructive hurricanes and coastal storms.

In harm's way

For as busy as the 1999 hurricane season was, it did not produce the cataclysmic storm that weather experts say is all but inevitable. A major hurricane striking Miami or New Orleans would cost upward of $100 billion, with taxpayers shouldering much of the cost, and that is not all of the risk. For example:

* An unparalleled building boom has placed billions in coastal property in harm's way.

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