A call to look again at coastal development

As more build on shores, costs of disasters increase

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

When Orrin H. Pilkey looks at scenes of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, he can't help but recall how his parents narrowly escaped harm more than 30 years ago when a similarly lethal storm, Camille, obliterated beachfront homes in their town of Waveland, Miss., 60 miles east of New Orleans.

Thanks to government money, the houses along the coast were rebuilt, and communities grew - putting new generations in harm's way. Katrina slammed with catastrophic force last week into the same stretch of coast.

"What are we doing?" asks Pilkey, a retired Duke University coastal geologist, who has spent much of his professional life since Camille in 1969 studying coastal erosion and fulminating against building communities on beaches.

Yet coastal development has proceeded apace, with federal, state and local governments pouring billions into reconstructing storm-wracked waterfront communities, armoring shorelines against erosion and providing flood insurance that helps homeowners repair and rebuild after a storm.

The price tag for sustaining the nation's love affair with coastal living keeps growing as development puts more people and more valuable property in the path of storms, which have been hitting the U.S. coast with increased frequency over the past decade.

Storm cycle

The Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at greater risk from what meteorologists say could be a decades-long cycle of more-frequent hurricanes and storms produced in the tropical ocean. Global warming may also increase the frequency and severity of storms, many scientists predict, though evidence of that is conflicting.

Eight of the nation's 10 most destructive natural disasters, as measured by federal relief payouts, were hurricanes, with six of them in the past decade, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA distributed $6.3 billion in relief last year after four hurricanes pummeled Florida and neighboring states in a matter of weeks.

The death toll and property damage from Katrina is still being tallied, but many expect it to set a record - one that could deplete federal flood-insurance funds and shake the property insurance industry as well.

The rising cost, some say, should prompt authorities to rethink coastal development and to think the unthinkable.

"How many times can [we] rebuild?" Pilkey asks. "The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is we need to get out of there. Or at the very least, we need to get the federal government out of there."

Subsidized development

Taxpayers subsidize coastal development in a variety of ways: through federal and state funding of shore erosion control projects; relief payments to rebuild storm-damaged roads, bridges and utilities; and providing government-managed flood insurance to help property owners repair and rebuild from wind and water damage.

In Maryland, for instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent $38.5 million since 1991 to replenish the eroded beach in the resort town of Ocean City, according to corps spokesman Bob Nelson. The federal agency and the state plan to spend a combined $500 million over 50 years maintaining the beach and a protective sand dune between the Atlantic surf, and the hotels and high-rise condominiums lining the narrow barrier island.

Because the inshore gulf waters are so shallow, that stretch of coast is more prone than the Atlantic to high storm surges. Mississippi's beachfront was walloped by a wall of wind-whipped water as tall as 29 feet by one estimate, even though the storm had weakened to Category 4 wind speeds before it reached land.

But some coastal scientists see a warning for the rest of the nation in the Gulf Coast's disaster.

"What's happening on the Mississippi coast is a sped-up version of what's happening everywhere on the [Atlantic and Gulf] coast," Pilkey says. "We're going to be continually impacted by storms, and at the same time we're going to be continually impacted by beachfront erosion. I think there's just no better illustration of why we need to rethink our beachfront development policies."

Others agree, though few will go as far as Pilkey to advocate a ban on reoccupying storm-wracked beachfront.

"Our vulnerability on the coast is not decreasing; it's increasing rapidly," says Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a group of government regulators and private consultants. Half of the U.S. population lives on or near a coast now, and thousands more move there every week, he said.

"We're setting ourselves up for events like this, no question about it," Larson adds, and because the coasts are increasingly built up, damage from storms is "going to get worse every time they occur."

While Pilkey and some others have questioned taxpayer-financed aid to beach communities, property owners in coastal communities have clamored for them, and politicians at all levels compete to win funding for them.

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