Get Feet Wet on Coastal Adaptation

October 15, 2013

Special Report: Part Three


Americans — and humans in general — have long flocked to the coasts. Thirty-nine percent of the U.S. population, or about 123 million of us, live in coastal counties. But many in coastal areas are finding it increasingly less hospitable due to sea-level rise and extreme weather events linked to climate change. As communities figure out how to adapt to these changes, it is often environmental journalists who are being asked to cover these complex stories.

So first, the basics. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has deemed 11,200 miles of the coast — about half of the total U.S. coastline — to be “highly vulnerable” to sea-level rise. These coastal areas are at risk of erosion and loss of use as the sea levels creep up. But they are also, perhaps more crucially, at increased risk of flooding during storms, which scientists say are becoming less predictable due to climate change. Yet more of us are moving to the coasts all the time. NOAA and the U.S. Census released a joint report earlier this year that found that, if population trends continue, the coastal population is expected to grow another 9 percent by 2020, to 134 million people.

Increasingly severe storms and more development on the coasts are already costing the U.S. government a lot of money. In the past three years, 11 storms have each caused more than $1 billion in damage — none as significant as the $60 billion in damage that Superstorm Sandy left behind in October 2012.

It’s only expected to get worse. A report that the Federal Emergency Management Agency released in June 2013 projects that the combined forces of climate change and population growth will double the number of Americans that live in flood-prone regions by the end of this century.

I covered many of the challenges faced by coastal communities in a recent feature at Mother Jones and found that even in places where local officials realize the problems they face, there is a lack of guidance and oversight from state and federal officials for how to think long-term. Budget and planning constraints often make it difficult to plan for projections 25, 50, or 100 years in the future.

Even though these coastal adaptation stories are as much about economics and politics as the environment, it is environmental reporters increasingly on the beat So to get insights on better reporting these issues, SEJournal spoke to reporters from Louisiana, New Jersey, and Florida about some of the challenges and opportunities they have found.

Learn how to read flood maps

First order of business: Check out your local floodplain maps. These maps, issued by FEMA, tell you what properties are at risk of flooding. A house is considered at risk if there is a one-percent risk in any given year of a major flood event occurring. This is often called the 100-year floodplain, but that can be a misleading term, as many folks assume it means a flood will happen only once every century.

If you think about it more practically, it means there’s a 26-percent chance of a flood happening at some point during a 30-year mortgage on a house. And scientists have predicted that what was once a 100-year flood could happen more like every three to 20 years as the climate warms.

“Learning how to read flood maps is critical,” said Sarah Watson, the environment and Sandy-recovery reporter at the Atlantic City Press, in New Jersey. Better still, Watson says, is getting to know your local and regional floodplain managers. “They know how to tell you what you may not realize is important,” she said.

One of the challenges when it comes to flood maps, however, is that they only convey current flood risks. While recent changes made to the federal flood insurance program will allow FEMA to take future projections related to climate change and sea-level rise into account as they create new maps, those projections are not included in the updated maps that are currently being rolled out. It will likely take years before regions see maps that include those projections.

Lifts, walls and buyouts

Many areas of the coast hardest hit by storms have started, or are considering, raising houses out of the floodplain. FEMA has a Hazard Mitigation Grant Program that many regions are using to fund home-lifting; others have used post-storm recovery funds to do so.

But even if you lift the houses, there are still risks. As one planning director in a Virginia coastal community pointed out, flooding will still submerge the roads, and can trap residents and put them out of reach of emergency services personnel. It can also damage roads, utilities, sewer systems and other infrastructure. That’s why Highlands, N.J., for example, is considering raising the entire downtown of this 5,000-person town by at least 10 feet — a $30-million plan.

In some cases, FEMA also offers complete buy-outs to homeowners in areas that are repeatedly subjected to flooding. In those cases, the land must be returned to open space — which prevents future losses and can improve coastal resilience, as green space provides more natural drainage and coastline protection (for more, see this recent study.)

Two other New Jersey towns, Mantoloking and Brick, recently got federal and state approval and funds to install 40-foot steel seawalls on their coast.

Buried under the sand, the walls are meant to block storm surge and prevent beach erosion. But at $40 million, the walls are hardly a scalable solution for the entire coast. Watson also suggests reviewing local ordinances with an eye to laws and regulations that might have consequences for sea-level rise and storm issues. “Your town might be doing everything right, but the next over is screwing you over,” said Watson.

Lessons from the Gulf

Reporters in the northeast are now covering many of the same issues and concerns that reporters on the Gulf coast have been looking at for years, particularly in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

One mistake reporters sometimes encounter in covering coastal climate issues is “assuming that climate change alone is going to be what the problem is,” says Mark Schleifstein, the environment, hurricane and levee reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Climate change can act as an accelerant for already-existing problems, like coastal erosion. And it acts in addition to regular weather cycles of El Niño and La Niña.

And then there are also coastal problems that are exacerbated by non-climate issues, such as development in previously undeveloped areas and lost drainage from wetlands. After a storm, Schleifstein said it can be “difficult to distinguish how much damage there is from that storm compared to how much there was in the past because there weren’t as many people there 30, 40 years ago.”

But most of the community-level adaptation under way is much more mundane than giant seawalls or raising an entire town. In many places, it’s about doing the things governments are already doing, but with an eye to future conditions.

“The challenge is getting people to talk about it in non-bureaucratic terms,” said Craig Pittman, a reporter at the Tampa [Fla.] Bay Times. “You’re dealing with the real nuts and bolts of municipal life — sewage systems, storm drainage.” But those, too, are important adaptation issues.

Pittman also suggests getting to know scientists and engineers at your local colleges and universities, who may be looking at issues that local governments aren’t even yet aware of. This is of course important for any reporter, but it’s particularly important for adaptation issues that tend to be specific to a geographic area.

The best advice, however, is to get out in the field and see firsthand the infrastructure that is most at risk. It’s hard to convey to readers the challenges of adapting without explaining what it looks like — out there in the swamps, the dunes or the tidewater basins. “Get your feet on the ground,” said Watson. “Get wet.”

Kate Sheppard is the senior reporter and the energy and environment editor at the Huffington Post. She previously reported for Mother Jones and Grist.

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* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.