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Sandy Foundations: Rebuilding in hurricane zones

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

"'People built palatial houses, and we are now trying to protect the houses by making the sandbar stay in one place,' said Nicole Heller, an ecologist at Duke University. 'That's not what a sandbar does.'"

Jan. 18, 2013

Denise Tortorello, a real estate agent at Riviera Realty in Point Pleasant, N.J., said she can't tell yet where property values are headed since Hurricane Sandy demolished a string of beach towns built on a slender strip of barrier islands in the Atlantic.

"I'm sitting in my office, and I'm looking at the National Guard right outside out my window," she said. On a December day, the temperature outside was 65 degrees.

Just south in Mantoloking, second homes sell for up to $10 million. Many were destroyed, along with roads, sewer lines, gas lines, power lines. "They're replacing everything," Tortorello said. "The general consensus is, 'It's not going to happen again. It was the 100-year flood.'"

But Sandy is the future, climate scientists said. 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. 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?

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. Manhattan might be saved, but Breezy Point? Will American cities build giant sea barriers, like Rotterdam, Netherlands, and London? Or vast underground water-holding chambers like Tokyo? At what cost?

The staircase for a home now lies smashed in the sands in front of the structure Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 on Dauphin Island, Ala. after Hurricane Isaac's landfall in Louisiana. (AP Photo/Press-Register, G.M. Andrews)

Billions for sea walls

The prospects are staggering. Naval bases, power plants, ports, highways - trillions of dollars of investment - sit on U.S. coasts because it once made sense to put them there. As people flocked to the shores, tiny beach towns became cities. Congress is hardly maintaining roads and bridges; its appetite for giant new sea walls around New York Harbor has yet to be tested.

"You may be able to have the government rebuild New Orleans, and maybe you could have the government rebuild from Sandy," said John Englander, author of "High Tide on Main Street," a book on how rising seas will affect the coasts.

"But as sea level rises and reclaims shoreline all around the United States and all over the world, governments can't afford to reimburse that. It's not just Miami, it's Charleston, it's downtown Seattle, it's Sacramento, it's every coastal city and city on rivers."

A $14.5 billion system of barriers now protects New Orleans. But barriers won't work for Miami, sprawling just 6 feet above sea level on porous limestone.

San Francisco planners dismissed large barriers at the Golden Gate early on. Shielding the bay would require the equivalent of two dams to allow water to flow in and out, fitted with locks for ship traffic, said Will Travis, senior adviser to the Bay Area Joint Policy Committee, which coordinates planning by four regional agencies.

"If you just put a dam across the Golden Gate, well, that would be fine," he said, "but then you would kiss the bay goodbye and the whole ecosystem."

Since Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston, Texas, in 2008, narrowly missing the Houston Ship Channel and its petrochemical complex, Houston has been debating the "Ike Dike," a 62-mile, 17-foot wall along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, with giant sea gates into Galveston Bay.

The Ike Dike remains "an advanced concept" according to its creator, William Merrell, chair of marine sciences at Texas A&M University, but has not proceeded for lack of money and worries about the wisdom of such an undertaking. Cost estimates range from $6 billion to triple that.

An aerial view of San Francisco International Airport on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. Paul Chinn/The Chronicle

Coasts going under

The rate of sea-level rise has doubled since 1990; it is expected to accelerate with the rapid melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice sheets. Greenland set a record for melting in July. Arctic sea ice reached a record low in September.

Carbon dioxide concentrations are the highest they've been in 15 million years, according to a World Bank report, "Turn Down the Heat," that last month summarized research. At today's emissions rate, the planet could warm by 4 degrees centigrade by the end of the century, an event "unknown in human experience," the report said. The coolest months of the year will be "much warmer" than the warmest months now.

Last year broke U.S. records with 10 severe weather events that cost more than $1 billion each. As the oceans warm, storms become more intense. The report warned of increasing heat waves, droughts, floods, species extinctions and sea-level rise, citing heat waves in Russia and Europe and floods in Pakistan in 2010, the Plains heat wave last year, and the U.S. drought this year.

Greenhouse gas emissions already are "above the absolute highest scenario" that was projected by the Intergovernmental Affairs Panel on Climate Change in its latest report, in 2007, said S. Jeffress Williams, a scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey at the Woods Hole Science Center in Massachusetts. Most coastal cities are "built within a couple of meters of sea level, and they're all extremely vulnerable."

Under high-emissions scenarios, seas are expected to rise from 3 to 4 feet this century. Gradual coastal inundation is feared less than destructive storm surges, such as Sandy's, which launch from a higher sea platform in storms made more intense by the warming ocean.

Developers of Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, constructed of landfill at sea level, have a plan considered by some a national model. They have set aside the perimeter for a levee that will rise with the seas.

"The consensus was the best approach for sea-level rise is adaptive management," said Stephen Proud, project manager for Lennar Urban, one of the developers.

Emissions from several petroleum and chemical plants located along the Houston Ship Channel merge with morning haze and clouds Thursday, April 21, 2000, on the outskirts of Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Stravato) CAT

Coastal development encouraged

Coastlines are ecologically rich areas, pressed by development on one side, and rising seas on the other. In their natural state of dunes, marshes, bayous, estuaries, barrier islands and other shifting features, they are designed by nature to absorb storms. Much of the recent storm damage has been concentrated on barrier islands - the Rockaways in New York, New Jersey's Barnegat Peninsula and Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula in Texas.

"People built palatial houses, and we are now trying to protect the houses by making the sandbar stay in one place," said Nicole Heller, an ecologist at Duke University. "That's not what a sandbar does."

Far from discouraging building on the coast, Congress encourages it by subsidized flood insurance, disaster aid and flood-control projects such as levees. California has more levees than any state, and they so encourage unwise development behind them that economists have dubbed it the "levee effect." The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta "is almost entirely below sea level," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

State and local governments further encourage building in vulnerable areas through zoning, building codes and provision of roads, sewers and other infrastructure. New Jersey is rebuilding Highway 35, sitting on a barrier island and washed away by Sandy, just as North Carolina repeatedly reconstructs Highway 12 on its Outer Banks.

"This is why so many people buy ocean-front homes," said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

"Take a place like Dauphin Island, Ala., that's been whacked by tropical storms 10 times in 30 years, and you say, 'Gosh those people must be crazy to rebuild.' Well, they're not crazy. They're making a perfectly reasonable economic decision. It's the rest of us that are crazy."

Michael Tetreau, first selectman of Fairfield, Conn., heavily damaged by Sandy, said, "We have to work within zoning laws. We can't unilaterally take someone's property away. The ocean might do it, but we can't do it."

Who says 'don't build'?

Tetreau said cities have an obligation to their citizens to rebuild infrastructure and that the question is better posed to the federal government, which must decide whether to insure homes in dangerous areas. "Somebody pointed out that things like Interstate 95 and the railroad tracks are not that high above sea level right now," Tetreau said.

He said he was asked a year ago why the town's sewage-treatment plant was built so close to the sea. "It's like, because things flow downhill," he said. "That's the lowest point. You've got to put it there. At some point, if the lowest point is underwater, you have to back it up."

Only 100 or so buildings out of 5,900 on the Texas coast's Bolivar Peninsula survived Ike. Property values dropped 30 percent right after the storm, said Anne Willis, a Realtor with Swede's Real Estate in Crystal Beach, Texas.

Soon though, "Lots started selling like crazy, because people felt they could get a bargain," she said. The price decline "only lasted about a year, and then they've gone up now back to where they were before Ike. Rebuilding has been crazy around here."

The government offered buyouts, she said, "but a lot of the people that took them, they bought somewhere else and built with the money. ... Actually they're building bigger. If they had 1,000 square feet, they just build 2,000 square feet. I mean, everybody's building bigger."

Federally subsidized flood insurance is available to Bolivar homeowners, and with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "they rebuilt the roads, they rebuilt the great big joint fire station, all the infrastructure's back," Willis said. "Back better than ever."

Joe Piscitelli, a Milford, Conn., Realtor who covers 60 miles of shoreline on the Long Island Sound, said in some low-lying towns such as East Haven, "We've seen a drop in prices and a big fear, actually, of the water." Properties there have been sitting unsold since Hurricane Irene struck in 2011.

"You couldn't give away a piece of property right now," he said. "But the way we are as Americans, by next spring when the sun is out and it's 80 degrees and the seals are out there swimming and people are out in their sailboats, (we will) forget about it. People won't even remember the storm. They'll just be thinking of the magic of the water."

Flood insurance reformed

Last summer, Congress made several reforms to the flood insurance program that will raise premiums, update flood maps and consider climate change for the first time. As many as 40 percent of homes that have collected multiple payouts for flood losses are not even mapped as high-risk areas by FEMA, which would push up premiums, said Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, a conservative think tank that worked with environmental groups to get reforms.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made promises to rebuild areas that Sandy destroyed. Representatives of the nine states that were declared disaster areas after Sandy are clamoring for federal aid to rebuild while promising to do so intelligently.

"A nation that put a man on the moon can figure out how to rebuild and recover but also do it smarter and more cost-effectively than we've done in the past," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "Doing the same thing again and again is not going to work."

Members of Congress from New Jersey and Maryland want the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild beaches and dunes that had already been rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars but were swept away by Sandy. Maryland representatives argued that beach replenishment saved Ocean City.

Coastal scientists said there may not be enough sand on the Continental Shelf to continue rebuilding beaches.

"We clearly need to have a discussion as to whether or not federal taxpayers should spend $1 billion to re-engineer all of the beaches of New Jersey to provide some supposed protection for private property along the shorelines," said Young, of Western Carolina University.

"Sooner or later we will retreat, and the question is how you do it," he said. "The way we could begin having some of these coastal communities take a step back from the hazard would be if we cut off subsidies, and they had to finance the risk themselves."

Stanford University political scientist Neil Malhotra published a paper after Hurricane Katrina that found voters punish politicians who prepare for disasters and reward those who respond to them.

If a town imposes costly building codes and restrictive zoning and survives a hurricane, "No one appreciates work that was done because they've already voted that guy out," said Ben Strauss, director of the program on sea-level rise at Climate Central, a nonprofit educational and research group.

"The neighboring town may be flattened, but their leader goes to Washington and collects aid to build back. That leader, who made no plans in advance, is a hero."

Chris Osterman with United Airlines looked down from the tower lounge at the traffic at the airport. The FAA's new Metroplex plan is a collaborative effort to make air traffic control more efficient, help airlines improve on-time performance and reduce emissions. Officials unveiled the program during a tour of Oakland Airport Monday March 20, 2012. Sean Culligan/The Chronicle

Costly coastal armor

A debate rages among architects and coastal scientists about whether to "armor the coast" with hard structures or to rebuild or create barrier islands, reefs, estuaries and other "green infrastructure."

Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, an associate professor of landscape architecture at City College of New York, said the giant barriers envisioned for New York Harbor would damage surrounding areas and are prone to catastrophic failure if oceans overtop them. She called for redundant, permeable structures incorporating gradient edges that absorb wave energy, such as artificial barrier islands.

"No storm surge barrier is going to reduce the volume of water that's coming in a surge," she said. "It's deflecting against that barrier and bouncing elsewhere."

That means anyone who is not behind a barrier sees bigger storm surges.

A huge experiment with green infrastructure is under way on the Louisiana coast.

John Kostyack, vice president of wildlife conservation for the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group, hopes that BP's multibillion-dollar oil spill settlement will help pay for a state plan that calls for reconstructing parts of Louisiana's coastal wetlands.

These have been severely damaged, in part by the extensive levee system built in the last century to prevent the Mississippi River from flooding. Flooding allowed the river to dump sediment along the coast, replenishing wetlands.

The new plan includes physically piping dredged sediment to re-create wetlands as the river once did on its own.

Big cities face bigger, costlier and more perplexing issues.

Large parts of Silicon Valley and downtown San Francisco face inundation. Much of the land ringing the San Francisco Bay is landfill built only to current sea level. The South Bay rests on former orchards that were irrigated with groundwater, causing the land to sink below sea level. The bay is ringed by major highways.

"Using rough figures, by midcentury we could have somewhere on order of 280 square miles under water," said Travis of the Bay Area Joint Policy Committee. "That's $60 billion worth of transportation infrastructure, schools, houses, a quarter-million people."

JANUARY 8, 2012: It was reported by the National Climatic Data Center that 2012 is on record as the hottest year ever in the contiguous United States. The record was broken by one degree set in 1998. The year saw damaging droughts in the Midwest, devastating coastal storms and tornadoes and record breaking temperatures in many cities. BAY HEAD, NJ - NOVEMBER 14: Flood waters surround a stop sign on November 14, 2012 in Bay Head, New Jersey. Many residents of the hard hit seaside town remain without power following Superstorm Sandy. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Who goes under?

Choices will be excruciating.

"I think it goes without question that we will want to protect downtown San Francisco as long as we can, and the airports and Silicon Valley," Travis said. "But what happens when you get to communities like East Palo Alto and West Oakland and Richmond, where if you do a cost-benefit analysis, you say, these homes aren't worth all that much, and it might not be worthwhile to protect them? But what if you live there? What if it's your home, and that's where your parents grew up, your grandparents, and your church is there and your schools, and your whole social structure and everybody you know? It's like the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans."

He said people often find their house on maps that show areas of projected flooding and think they are safe if they're on a hill.

"It won't do you any good if you live on a hill if you can't get down onto the freeway to get to work, and your sewage treatment plant goes under water and you can't flush the toilet, and the power plants go out," Travis said.

Lindy Lowe, who heads the Adapting to Rising Tides project for the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency that works on the bay, said her group is trying to determine precisely what parts of Alameda County are vulnerable.

When the group began looking at Oakland International Airport, they realized that not only the airport but the roads leading to it would be flooded.

"That was something we hadn't realized," she said. "Protecting the runway wouldn't protect the function of the airport, because you wouldn't be able to get to it."

Phil Bedient, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University who directs the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, said, "You need to protect the Houston ship channel and the ship channel industries, because it would be a major hit on the U.S. economy, if that took a direct hurricane hit."

But to try to protect the entire shoreline would cost tens of billions of dollars, he said.

He doesn't think giant sea barriers will fix the problem. "These storms are big, they're complex, and you simply cannot treat this like we are going to produce a single flood-control solution here that will work forever and ever," Bedient said. The cost of doing that would be astronomical." Asked to define astronomical, he said, "Hundreds of billions."

Dutch consultants have become the rage among coastal planners, including those in San Francisco, New York and Houston.

"But getting to the next step of actually figuring out what the options are, which one to choose, how to pay for it, and then going ahead and doing it, is some years down the road," Travis said. "It could very well be too late."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1991 to 2018, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University.

Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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