Seasonal high tides regularly flood the streets of Miami as sea level rises. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
To get a sense of how much it will cost the nation to save itself from rising seas over the next 50 years, consider Norfolk, Virginia.
In November, the Army Corps released a proposal for protecting the cityfrom coastal flooding that would cost $1.8 billion. Some experts consider the estimate low. And it doesn’t include the Navy’s largest base, which lies within city limits and likely needs at least another $1 billion in construction.
Then consider the costs to protect Boston, New York, Baltimore, Miami, Tampa, New Orleans, Houston and the more than 3,000 miles of coastline in between.
Rising seas driven by climate change are flooding the nation’s coasts now. The problem will get worse over the next 50 years, but the United States has barely begun to consider what’s needed and hasn’t grappled with the costs or who will pay. Many decisions are left to state and local governments, particularly now that the federal government under President Donald Trump has halted action to mitigate climate change and reversed nascent federal efforts to adapt to its effects.
- Globally, seas have risen about 7 to 8 inches on average since 1900, with about 3 inches of that coming since 1993. They’re very likely to rise at least 0.5-1.2 feet by 2050 and 1-4.3 feet by 2100, and a rise of more than 8 feet by century’s end is possible, according to a U.S. climate science report released this year. Because of currents and geology, relative sea level rise is likely to be higher than average in the U.S. Northeast and western Gulf Coast.
- By the time the waters rise 14 inches, what’s now a once-in-five-years coastal flood will come five times a year, a recent government study determined. By 2060, the number of coastal communities facing chronic flooding from rising seas could double to about 180, even if we rapidly cut emissions, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. If we don’t slash emissions, that number could be 360.
- The costs from this inundation will be tremendous. One study,published in the journal Science in June, found that rising seas and more powerful tropical storms will cost the nation an additional 0.5 percent of GDP annually by 2100. Another, by the real estate firm Zillow, estimated that a rise of 6 feet by 2100 would inundate nearly 1.9 million homes worth a combined $882 billion.
- Estimating what it would cost to avoid some of this is trickier. It will certainly be expensive—look no further than Norfolk’s $1.8 billion—but some research indicates it may be less costly than failing to act. An analysis by NRDC found that buying out low- and middle-income owners of single-family homes that repeatedly flood could save the National Flood Insurance Program between $20 billion and $80 billion by 2100.
- The Trump administration, however, has revoked or withdrawn at least six federal programs or orders intended to help make the nation’s infrastructure more resilient to rising seas and climate change. That includes an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 that expanded the federal floodplain to account for climate change projections and limited or controlled any federal infrastructure spending within that zone. Trump revoked the order in August. Trump also disbanded a panel that was trying to help cities adapt to climate change.
“By and large, at every level of government, the nation is failing to recognize the challenge of sea level rise, much less address it in a proactive way,” said Robert Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Build Smarter, Move Away from the Risk
Moore said the country faces two main tasks: First, we have to stop building in risky, flood prone areas on the coast. Then we need to find ways to move people who already live there. One 2010 study estimated that 8.4 million Americans live in high-risk coastal flood areas.
Currently, federal policies including the National Flood Insurance Program are designed to encourage people to rebuild where they are, even if their properties are likely to flood again.
“What we do now is we basically wait for a disaster to happen and a massive disruption to occur and then we scramble around to get people back to where they were,” Moore said.
Moore and others are pushing for reforms that would encourage buy-outs of willing homeowners. (The House passed a bill in November that would adopt some of these reforms.)
Creating the Next New Orleans
Beyond that, most current adaptation plans rely on walling out the water, raising roads or other infrastructure and pumping out flood waters, a process Moore likens to creating “another New Orleans.”
R.J. Lehmann, editor in chief of the conservative think tank R Street, said we’ll have to pick our battles by focusing on what’s worth protecting. “You look to a city like Atlantic City, which is on a barrier island and is highly vulnerable to floods” and which by some accounts is a failed city economically, he said. “Will we go to extraordinary lengths to save a city like Atlantic City? I think the answer is no.”
“We’re not in the habit of making those bloodless decisions on the cost and benefit of saving infrastructure,” he said. “We’re going to have to.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nicholas Kusnetz is a reporter for InsideClimate News. Before joining ICN, he ran the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, which won a New York Press Club Award for Political Coverage. He also covered fracking as a reporting fellow at ProPublica and was a 2011 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. His work has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including Slate, The Washington Post, Businessweek, Mother Jones, The Nation, Fast Company and The New York Times.
Nicholas can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The federal government has proposed a $1.8 billion plan to help protect Norfolk, Virginia, from rising seas and increasingly powerful coastal storms by ringing the city with a series of floodwalls, storm surge barriers and tidal gates.
The low-lying city is among the most vulnerable to sea level rise, and it’s home to the nation’s largest naval base. The combination has made protecting the region a matter of national security for the federal government.
The draft recommendations, which the United States Army Corps of Engineers published Friday, said “the project has the potential to provide significant benefits to the nation by reducing coastal storm risk on the infrastructure including all of the primary roadways into the Naval Station.”
While the proposed measures are designed to shield thousands of properties from flooding by major storms and to protect critical infrastructure and utilities that serve the naval station, the base itself is outside the scope of the project. Three years ago, the Defense Department identified about 1.5 feet of sea level rise as a “tipping point” for the base that would dramatically increase the risk of damage from flooding. The military has not funded any projects specifically to address that threat, however, as detailed in a recent article by InsideClimate News.
The new Army Corps report found that “the city of Norfolk has high levels of risk and vulnerability to coastal storms which will be exacerbated by a combination of sea level rise and climate change over the study period,” which ran through 2076. By that point, the report said, the waters surrounding Norfolk will likely have risen anywhere from 11 inches to 3.3 feet. (The land beneath Norfolk is sinking, exacerbating the effects of global sea level rise.)
In addition to physical barriers like tidal gates and earthen berms, the report outlined several other steps that the city should take, including elevating existing structures and buying out landowners in flood zones so they can relocate elsewhere.
“This is a great plan and a great start,” said retired Rear Adm. Ann Phillips, who has worked on flooding and climate adaptation in the region and is on the advisory board of the Center for Climate and Security, a nonpartisan think tank. “It starts to outline the extreme costs we’re going to deal with, because $1.8 billion is probably low.”
The draft recommendations are now open for public comment, with the final report not expected to be finalized until January 2019. Only then would Congress begin to consider whether it would fund the project. The draft says the federal government would cover 65 percent of the costs—almost $1.2 billion—with the rest coming from local government.
“The road to resilience for Norfolk is a long one measured over years and decades,” George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said in an email.
Similar studies and work will need to be conducted for the cities that surround Norfolk and collectively make up the Hampton Roads region. The cities are interconnected in many ways, Phillips noted.
“Until you look at the whole region as one piece, you don’t fully recognize what the needs are,” she said. “Until we do that, we’re really selling ourselves short.”