Two years after Hurricane Sandy — the super storm that cost 34 lives in New Jersey as well as billions of dollars — rebuild is still underway. Besides the state’s urban infrastructure, the Northeast shoreline beaches were also heavily damaged.
The rising sea level in a changing global climate is becoming a mounting threat to coastal areas like New Jersey, bringing more frequent storms, flooding, and erosion. Should the cities relocate their communities away from coastal lines? My thought is: not necessarily — we are still able to rebuild our homes in the risky areas, on the premise that priority is given to restoring the coastal shorelines, not exploiting them.
Roughly 39% of US population live on coastal lines, 76% of which are vulnerable to sea level rise. 52% live in the coastal watershed counties, which are also faced with coastal hazards. To relocate these coastal dwellers, we first have to decide alternative locations that are considered ‘safe’. Unfortunately, much fewer places than we think are relatively safe in this country, and no state is risk-free. Natural disasters, such as flood, wildfire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc., are affecting more and more places. There are cultural and social barriers as well. One’s emotional attachment to the land, optimistic beliefs that discount the perception of risks, and community bonds, as well as the coast’s aesthetic values and economic benefits, make people want to stay rather than leave.
Adaptation, rather than avoidance, seems to be an ultimate choice in response to the inevitable climatic risks. To mitigate the harm, however, rebuilding cities need to pay attention to four factors.
First, vulnerable shorelines should be restored with carefully planned and implemented development (e.g. real estate). One primary cause of coastal erosion and the subsequent high disaster risks has been unregulated development. Although there have been national subsidies for sand renourishment project as well as the Coastal Zone Management Act to protect the beaches, states are largely driving their coastlines in harm’s way given their priority on development rather than restoration. In some cases, tourist activities and many other reasons have added to the desire of expanding development.
Second, the pricing of national flood insurance should better target at various levels of flood risks. Homeowners in the most vulnerable zones, for instance, can pay for a particular insurance option and are insured of more compensation in time of flood than moderately-risky homes, to protect the riskiest properties and discourage overdevelopment in the most vulnerable zones.
Besides, the community can make a huge contribution to building resilience. A study on the 1995 Chicago heat wave found that the Latino community that had more internal contact suffered less than the black community which interacted less. Fostering strong community ties and mutual assistance can make a real difference when a disaster hits.
Finally, strengthening the physical infrastructure is essential. Besides power grids, communications, drainage, surge barriers, etc., smart design such as floodable, water-storaging, and even floating facilities will become more and more important in the future.
In short, if natural disasters are inevitable, they are certainly mitigable through smart, science-based, and responsible planning. This will take time and resources. But it is likely.