Hurricane Sandy revealed the vulnerability of coastal communities, and in the storm’s aftermath, there’s lively debate about whether rebuilding on the coastline is wise. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing that issue head-on: “Gov. Cuomo wants Hurricane Sandy victims who live along the coast to consider rebuilding their homes on stilts or selling their houses to the state and relocating,” the New York Daily News reports. (“Gov. Cuomo to Sandy victims on the coasts: Sell your house,” by Kenneth Lovett) In a phone call, Cuomo told the News’ editorial board, “At one point, you have to say maybe Mother Nature doesn’t want you here. Maybe she’s trying to tell you something.”
But it’s a ticklish thing to tell somebody that they ought to leave their home — and Cuomo is careful to be tactful. “You have to be sensitive,” the governor told the paper. “I’m not saying anybody should sell, but you should think about it. And if you want to sell, we’ll have an option.”
New Jersey governor Chris Christie, by contrast, has been cool to suggestions that the Jersey Coast may not be a viable place for homes. As a policy matter, it’s complicated: New Jersey’s four coastal counties, a traditional vacation venue, contribute a disproportionate fraction of the state’s economic activity (as well as its tax revenue).
But the issue is sure to be a hot one as state and federal treasuries commit large sums to rebuilding in a fragile, and vulnerable, region. The San Francisco Chronicle posted a long and thoughtful examination of the controversy in mid-January (“Is rebuilding in hurricane zones wise?” by Carolyn Lochhead).
“As carbon dioxide emissions blast past worst-case scenarios, rising sea levels and storm surges will reshape every U.S. coastline, from San Francisco to Houston to New York,” the Chronicle points out. “It is only beginning to dawn on Americans, half of whom live on the coasts, that their future is a battle against the sea. In the impulse to rebuild from Sandy, much of it financed by the federal government, big questions need to be answered. What to protect, and how? Where to retreat? Where to stand fast?”
The problem is widespread, the Chronicle points out. “San Francisco International Airport is in danger of inundation, as are the airports of Oakland, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Houston sits atop a flood plain, along with much of the nation's petrochemical industry and a quarter of its gasoline supply. Connecticut has more than 100 sewage treatment plants on its battered shoreline.”
According to the Chronicle report, major urban redevelopment projects in San Francisco may offer one model for the solutions to those puzzles. “Developers of Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, constructed of landfill at sea level, have a plan considered by some a national model,” writes the paper. “They have set aside the perimeter for a levee that will rise with the seas.” Said Stephen Proud, a project manager for Lennar Urban: "The consensus was the best approach for sea-level rise is adaptive management."