We Need to Rethink Development Along Coastlines
Superstorm Sandy proved that the ocean—swelled up by hurricanes and superstorms—always wins. We can't continue rebuilding on places that are uninhabitable.
One December day seven years ago, I was just about the only person driving around Gulfport, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina had hit three months earlier, and the downtown and neighborhoods nearby still looked like Armageddon—house after house had been crushed or split open by the storm surge. Nobody was fixing anything. People were waiting on the government to draw up new flood maps so they would know what might be insured if they were to rebuild.
By now, a lot of people have rebuilt their houses in Gulfport. Many of them are quite close to the water, just like they were before Katrina. If you look at the street views on Google Maps, you see houses rebuilt, as if no 24-foot storm surge could ever happen again. There was a rule: If less than 50 percent of your house was damaged, you could rebuild at the previous elevation. If more than half was damaged, you had to build above a 17-foot elevation. People who rebuilt low to the ground in the surge zone either squirreled under the 50 percent threshold or they don’t have insurance. Many of these people can’t afford the high cost of insurance, the city’s director of economic development, David Nichols, told me recently. They may have had their house passed down through family, so they have no debt but no money either, and nowhere else to live. Redevelopment in Gulfport generally has been suppressed by unwillingness or inability to rebuild to the mandated elevations, or by a lack of insurance—there are still also plenty of empty sites in town. But for many who have rebuilt, you can see a disaster setting up all over again.
During Hurricane Sandy in late October—a historically large storm if not a historically strong one—New Jersey, New York City, and Long Island took the same sort of punch that Mississippi’s coast took during Katrina. The scope of destruction on low-lying areas of Staten Island and the Rockaways during Sandy is owed largely to the region’s population density in those areas rather than savage force. After the storm, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and others were pretty quick to start talk of building protective barriers to keep the Upper Bay of New York and New Jersey safe from future storm surges. That plan could cost $10 billion easily and as much as $23 billion, by the estimates of a Dutch environmental scientist, Jeroen Aerts, whom New York City hired to study its options.
Barriers might shelter Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Hoboken to some degree, but it’s not going to protect the Rockaways or the long coastline of New Jersey where towns turned to atolls during the hurricane. And it would never have helped Gulfport. This is an old game we’re playing, rebuilding on places that are uninhabitable. People need to move. Everybody wants a beach view until they look out and see a hurricane coming.
Now that the election is over, of course, we can talk about climate change again, but even if we were to reckon fully and soon with climate effects, and we won’t, it would be generations before we’d be done mopping up the mess we’ve already made. But there’s always time to think practically. The easiest and blindest thing would be to rebuild the Jersey and Long Island shores to look the way they did before, and bring back all the good memories. The wisest and most heartless thing would be to say: You should never have built anything there in the first place.