Skip to main content

Pro/Con - Should we rebuild after storms?

Typical objections to coastal redevelopment don’t hold water

Charles C. Isiminger

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some have suggested that it may not be prudent to rebuild in coastal areas, that instead we should retreat from the coast. This view has been applied to marine facilities as well as development in general.

The reasons cited against coastal redevelopment typically are cost, risk of future storm damage, and environmental impact. While at first glance these may seem to be sound arguments against redevelopment, they don’t hold up to further investigation.

The cost of rebuilding after a major event like Katrina may be great; however, it typically is less than the cost of new development because of the existing infrastructure. Even if some of the infrastructure has been damaged, the cost of repair is often less than the cost of new infrastructure. Besides the structural infrastructure, there is the legal infrastructure of platting, zoning, property ownership, etc.

Cost also is driven by market economics. Both private investment and insurance payouts typically are used by private entities to rebuild in storm-ravaged coastal areas. This is largely because most developed property in this country (other than infrastructure) is privately owned, and most property owners are going to redevelop their property to the highest and best use. Given the just compensation doctrine, if government were to prohibit redevelopment of coastal areas, it could cost the taxpayers an amount similar to the amount the private sector would spend on rebuilding.

The highest and best use typically is redevelopment because the benefits, as reflected in the market, outweigh the costs. People will pay to access or live in coastal areas because of the recreational and aesthetic benefits, because of the weather, and because of the environment. People will pay to live near the water whether they like to go to the beach, swim, fish, sail, dive, collect shells, bird-watch, or just look at the water. (It is commonly estimated that 50 percent of this country’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast.)

People will pay to stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant on the water. People will pay for fish and other seafood. People will pay to keep their boats at marinas, and they will pay for services provided by marine and other businesses in the area.

The first component of the risk of future storm “damage” is the risk of future storms, which is sometimes difficult to grasp. Storm severity often is expressed by return interval, such as a 50- or 100-year storm. A 100-year storm is a storm of such severity that it is likely to occur once every 100 years, with a 1-percent chance of occurring within any given year. As such, if a community were to experience a 100-year storm this year, they still would have a 1-percent chance of experiencing a 100-year storm the next year — not a good chance, though not one in a million. From a policy perspective, however, the more communities that are considered, and the longer the time frame considered, the more likely that the statistical averages will hold true.

The second component of the risk of future storm “damage” is the risk that a given storm will induce catastrophic damage. This component, unlike the first, can be mitigated by better construction practices. After Hurricane Andrew, building codes were rewritten in Florida and have proven to be a benefit in subsequent storms. It is a safe bet that if another Hurricane Katrina hits Mississippi, the damage from storm surge will not be as great because more structures will be elevated higher. In fact, one of the arguments for rebuilding is that rebuilt areas tend to fare better than other areas if there is another storm.

This is because of lessons learned in construction practices, as well as because more vulnerable structures, facilities and trees have been removed or replaced.

Many are concerned about the environmental consequences of rebuilding in coastal areas. While this isn’t practical for the reasons stated above, the cost of actually removing existing infrastructure and improvements would make it even more impractical. One of the lessons learned from stewardship of environmentally sensitive lands is that previously altered land, even land that hasn’t been altered but which is part of an affected ecosystem, cannot simply be “left alone.” Previously introduced exotic vegetation or animals, altered terrain, and altered hydrology can all prevent the establishment of a healthy native ecosystem without expensive alterations and continued management.

Redevelopment, on the other hand, assures that stakeholders such as boaters, anglers and others concerned about the environment will continue to be involved in local ecosystem management decisions. Redevelopment, and its subsequent economic activity, also produces the funds necessary for improvements to and management of these previously altered coastal areas.

Despite the recent perception of increased hurricane activity and the vulnerability of coastal areas, coastal development is here to stay. The coastal areas of this country and around the world are becoming ever more desirable and home to an increasing population. Rather than encouraging a retreat from these areas, we need to focus on better development within them.

Charles Isiminger is a professionalengineer in Florida and a principal of Isiminger & Stubbs Engineering Inc., specializing in coastal, environmental and marine engineering and permitting. He is president-elect of the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County.

Waterfront development defies common sense

Orrin H. Pilkey

If you were a man from Mars just arrived yesterday, what would you think about waterfront development along American shores? I think you would assume that this is a society gone mad. It defies all elements of common sense to build buildings next to open ocean shoreline.

In Waveland, Miss., the first eight to 10 rows of buildings were completely leveled in Hurricane Katrina. In 1969 Hurricane Camille leveled the first four or five rows. Dauphin Island, Ala., has received substantial damage five times in five different storms since Hurricane Frederick in 1979.

Yet shorefront buildings are so popular and so lucrative in the rental market that there are essentially no oceanfront lots left along the East Coast, and only a few remain along the GulfCoast. One of the last remaining 100-by-100-foot beachfront lots in Nags Head, N.C., is going for $2.5 million.

In general, near-beach structures face two problems: The first is storms. Greenhouse effect calculations indicate a strong likelihood that storms will increase in frequency and intensity over the next decades. It may well be that we saw the first of this in the 2005 hurricane season. Regardless, there is no question that any structure built near a beach on a barrier island will, at some point, suffer from a storm. Specific problems include:

• damage to the structure

• damage to community infrastructure (power, water, sewer)

• forced evacuation

• risk to life and limb

• reliance on an increasingly unwilling federal government to clean up after storms, and particularly to provide storm protection with artificial beaches

The second problem is shoreline erosion. Essentially all East and Gulf coast shorelines on barrier islands are eroding. This is a particularly serious problem because the sea level is rising 1 to 1.5 feet per century, and this rate is expected to increase. With or without storms, within a few decades, virtually all shorefront development will be threatened by erosion. The shoreline erosion hazard is quite unlike earthquake hazards, volcanic hazards, landslides, etc., in that we can tell, within a decade or so, when a house will fall in if something isn’t done.

In response to an eroding shoreline we have three major possible solutions. The first is to construct seawalls. The problem here is that seawalls eventually destroy beaches. This occurs because, after seawall construction, the beach continues to retreat, narrows, and eventually disappears up against the seawall.

The second is beach nourishment, or the emplacement of sand to create an artificial beach. Like seawalls, nourishment has numerous problems. It must be done repeatedly on intervals ranging from three to six years; new beaches cost at least $1 million per mile; increasingly, over the last decade, many poor-quality beaches have been pumped up, making recreation difficult; and nourishment causes major problems for beach ecosystems because it kills everything on the beach, and away go the birds that people like to watch and the fish people like to catch.

The third solution is to move back. This is the preferred alternative if preservation of recreational beaches is a high priority. This could involve the demolition of buildings, moving them back or letting them fall into the sea when their time comes.

One argument against the retreat option is that a significant part of the community tax base will be lost. But the American free enterprise system will quickly resolve that — if a hot-dog stand falls into the ocean, another will show up somewhere behind it.

The question of the benefits of waterfront development has a very clear answer: It does not benefit the general public, the many millions of people who don’t own beachfront property. Seawalls destroy beaches, and nourished beaches are costly and often of poor quality. If buildings were simply moved out of the way, the beach will always be there in fine shape. Beach visitors can find lodging on the backside of the island, or on the nearby mainland.

But seawalls and/or beach nourishment would have made no difference along the Mississippi coast in Katrina. In fact, a long seawall with a nourished beach in front of it was already present along the Mississippi coast. The storm surge simply overstepped the beach and slammed into the community.

The public is beginning to smell a rat. More and more media sources are beginning to recognize the irony of spending huge amounts of public money to rescue those who are imprudent enough to build near a shoreline. Why should the public pay for their stupid acts and help them make money in the rental market?

The time has come to prohibit reconstruction of storm-destroyed buildings, and to recognize the interests and rights of the general population. The time has come to begin moving back.

Orrin Pilkey is a research professor, James B. Duke professor emeritus of Earth & Ocean Sciences, and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines within the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences in the NicholasSchool of the Environment and Earth Sciences at DukeUniversity.