The Coastal Star

Rising Water: First the probable, then the practical when it comes to building

This home on a bluff in Nantucket, Mass., will most likely fall into the ocean at some point because of accelerating erosion. Photo by Richard Gelpke

A Coastal Star Special Report:

Rising Water: New signs of rising sea levels cause concern

Adapting to change: First the probable, then the practical when it comes to building | Deeper waters: Fights over sea rise just beginning | Maps: Estimates of local water rise

The psychology of change: Dialogue beats denial when dealing with upheaval | Author John Englander envisioned the NYC storm disaster | Quotes: What they are saying

Sea Level Rise: A lexicon

Editor's Note: Lessons learned from Sandy | Part I: Hurricane shows just how fragile our shores are

By Cheryl Blackerby

    A pattern of discussion among homeowners and academics is emerging at  meetings about sea level rise. First are the lectures and panel discussions focusing on scientific projections of sea rise levels measured in inches and timetables calculated in years: 20, 30, 50 and 100 years.
    Then come the hard questions about specifics and exactly how it will change our lives.
    “The insurance industry will dictate a lot of this because they will stop writing policies or they will become too expensive,” said Florida International University marine geologist Pete Harlem.
    “And we’re going to have external influences. There will be zoning changes such as they’re discussing in New Jersey, where they pull the most vulnerable properties and set people up somewhere else.”
    Keren Bolter, research assistant in geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, has asked focus groups of homeowners about the prospects of losing insurance. “Some of them say their insurance went up and they are dropping it.”
    Last year, Congress passed a law called the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which will require the National Flood Insurance Program to raise rates to reflect true flood risk.  On Oct. 1, about 20 percent of property owners with federal flood insurance were notified their insurance would rise, some policies as much as tenfold. Other notices of rate increases will follow.
    “Florida has 40 percent of the nation’s policies, approximately 2 million,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has sponsored a bill to delay the law. “But many homeowners in Florida are concerned that the insurance rate increases scheduled to go into effect this year will make it impossible for them to sell their homes or pay the premiums.”
    And at what point will there be “managed retreat,” where areas will be allowed to flood and homeowners will be forced to relocate? Will local and federal  governments subsidize relocation? And what about rolling easements, which allow homeowners to stay on their property as long as it’s livable?
    These are questions being asked now in other places. Indonesia is in the process of moving 3 million people in its capital city, Jakarta, which is sinking 12 inches per year. Forty percent of the city is below sea level.
    Closer to home, in Nantucket, Mass., houses have already fallen into the sea and others are being moved farther away from a disappearing coast. The Conservation Commission in Nantucket is coming up with a plan to decide which roads to save and where to build new ones, and which homes need to be vacated. Many houses are perched precariously on high bluffs that are losing 4 to 10 feet each year to erosion that has greatly accelerated in the last two decades.  
    Sarah Oktay, chemical oceanographer and director of the University of Massachusetts Boston Nantucket Field Station, said some of the town’s homeowners are moving their homes away from the sea, farther back on their lots, trying to buy time.  “They said that would give them four or five more years to enjoy their houses and they seemed happy with that,” she said.
    After discussion of probabilities and possibilities, meetings about sea level rise invariably turn to the practical. What can be done to protect homes, towns, roads and utilities?
    It’s a given that Floridians want to stay in Florida. Is it possible to build surge gates such as Maeslant Barrier, the largest storm surge barrier in the world, in Rotterdam, Netherlands?
    No, it isn’t possible in Florida, say experts. But floating cities like those planned in the Netherlands, and floating bridges and docks are possibilities.
    Cities can raise the heights of roads, barrier islands and utility plants, say experts. Some of these efforts may not last forever, but what if they last 50 years?
    “What I think, in terms of how you get something done, is that every time an engineer starts to work on a plan for a road, or a land use planner starts to look at a land use change in a vulnerable area, that they’re thinking about climate change and what that’s going to look like in the future,” Jon Van Arnam, assistant Palm Beach County administrator, told a workshop at the Sea Level Rise Symposium at Oxbridge Academy in July.
    “It becomes the standard way of doing business. It doesn’t become a plan that sits on the shelf somewhere,” Van Arnam  said.
    And as far as insurance? “If I don’t have insurance I’ll be OK,” says FAU’s Bolter. “My mom lives on the beach and she understands risk. It’s worth it to her to walk on the beach in the mornings. I have faith that our children can figure it out.”

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