Highway to the danger zone

Following Sandy, HuffPo and NYT dig into the folly of coastal development

Hurricane Sandy renewed the media’s interest in the many foolish ways that we increase our vulnerability to extreme weather. There’s climate change, of course. That came up right away.

But carbon pollution isn’t the only, or even the most immediate, thing that we’re doing to imperil ourselves. There’s also relentless, right-up-to-the-water’s-edge-in-a-floodplain coastal development.

After focusing on global warming in the days after Sandy battered beachside communities from North Carolina to New York, the press is finally analyzing the impetus for society’s lemming-like march to sea.

Despite the known hazards of building property in low-lying, high-risk flood zones, we have trouble resisting the impulse. On NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Klaus Jacobs, an expert on disaster risk at Columbia University, and David Ropeik, an expert in risk communications (and CJR contributor) discussed the “gaps” in risk perception that explain this irrational behavior. But more importantly, a series of investigative articles at The New York Times and The Huffington Post have exposed the ways that government enables it.

The most impressive of these pieces was a 9,800-word tour de force by a team of five Huffington Post reporters, published on November 12, which takes an exhaustive look at how:

Authorities in New York and New Jersey simply allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades, even as the potential for a massive storm surge in the region became increasingly clear.

The article describes a number of instances when policymakers missed or simply ignored opportunities to change the course of where and how beachfront construction rolled out in the two states. The piece was especially critical of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s been vocal about the need to prepare for global warming but hasn’t always walked the walk.

“Despite the Bloomberg administration’s studies of climate change,” the reporters noted, “it dissented from key substantive recommendations made by the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force in 2010 for planning development.”

The article goes into great detail on the intense pressure (measured in dollar signs) that real estate interests place on city and state governments throughout New York and New Jersey, and it illustrates its points with case studies of risky development projects in low-lying coastal areas of the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, and the Rockaways area of Queens. The projects reflect poor land-use planning and zoning policies that have spanned decades, and interviews with current and former policymakers, academics, and local advocates help to make the case. The article features over a dozen “no comments” from top officials and developers, however—a sign that journalists covering coastal development face many obstacles.

The problems go beyond state, county, and municipal authorities. Take the National Flood Insurance Program, which The New York Times scrutinized in a front-page article by a team of three reporters that was published November 13. The program, established in 1968, is “mandatory for homeowners with a federally backed mortgage if they live in an area subject to flooding at least once every 100 years,” but it is deeply in debt. In four of the past eight years, claims have “eclipsed” premiums, most notably following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to the Times:

Congress, just this summer, overhauled the flawed program by allowing large increases in premiums paid by vacation home owners and those repeatedly hit by floods. But critics say taxpayer money should not be used to bail it out again — essentially subsidizing the rebuilding of homes in risky areas — without Congress’ mandating even more radical changes…

Even with the new rules, critics argue, it will be many years, if ever, before many homeowners are required to pay premiums that accurately reflect the market cost of the coverage. Some communities have long resisted imposing more appropriate building codes to prevent damage, putting the program at further risk of devastating losses when storms like Hurricane Sandy hit. And despite some efforts in recent years, many of the flood maps the program relies on are out of date — which can have expensive, and even deadly, consequences in this era of rising sea levels if homeowners are not cognizant of the risks they face.

The stubbornness has had shocking consequences, the Times reported:

One Biloxi, Miss., property valued at $183,000 flooded 15 times over a decade, costing the program $1.47 million, according to federal data provided by the agency to a member of Congress. Another in Humble, Tex., has resulted in over $2 million in flood payouts even though it was worth just $116,000.

Such astonishing facts are perhaps what inspired Carl Safina, an ecologist and marine conservationist who lives on Long Island, to question the wisdom of having taxpayers subsidize rebuilding in flood-prone areas. “I certainly love shoreside living. I love walking the beach in the morning with my dogs. I love my boat and the people at Montauk’s Westlake Marina where I keep it,” he wrote in a column for CNN. “I have federal flood insurance, thank you. But really, it’s time you considered cutting me off.”

It’s not just the insurance, though. As The New York Times reported in a second front-page article published Sunday, there is also the less widely known Stafford Act, “a federal law that taps the United States Treasury for 75 percent or more of the cost of fixing storm-damaged infrastructure, like roads and utilities.” According to the report:

Experts say the law is at least as important as the flood program in motivating reconstruction after storms. In the same way flood insurance shields families from the financial consequences of rebuilding in risky areas, the Stafford Act shields local and state governments from the full implications of their decisions on land use.

Indeed, despite the writing on the walls and at news outlets across the United States, there are many forces, from the highest levels of government to the lowest, that encourage “short-term thinking” about coastal development, as The Huffington Post’s Tom Zeller, Jr. put it. Hard-hitting coverage of the problem, such as we’ve seen in the past two weeks, can help explain the intransigence, but to break through it, the media will have to deal with their own attention deficit problem and keep plugging away long after the scars inflicted by Sandy have begun to fade.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,