Coastal concerns

July 2013 » Departments » COMMENT

Severe weather disasters and damage during the last decade, and especially in 2012, tell a story of a U.S. coastal infrastructure mostly still unprepared for future forecasts that include more frequent and intense storms and sea level rise. Consider the following:

According to Climate Central, 11 billion gallons of partially or untreated sewage leaked into rivers, lakes, and waterways in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Ninety-four percent of the spilled sewage was from storm surge – floodwater that overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants – primarily in New York and New Jersey, causing about $3 billion in wastewater treatment infrastructure damage.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, 11 weather and climate disaster events in 2012 each exceeded $1 billion in damages. The total of $110 billion in damages throughout the year – including about $65 billion from Hurricane Sandy – ranked only behind 2005, during which the United States incurred $160 billion in weather-related damages caused in part by four land-falling hurricanes including Hurricane Katrina. The Natural Resources Defense Council noted that the federal government (i.e., taxpayers) spent more in 2012 responding to damages caused by extreme weather events – drought, storms, floods, and wildfires – than on education or bridges and roads.

According to Tim Dellapenna, Ph.D., associate professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston, Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused $30 billion in damages and removed 100 million cubic yards of sand from the shoreline, accomplishing overnight what nature normally takes 65 years to do. Studies show that about 64 percent of the Texas coast is eroding at an average rate of 6 feet per year; some areas are losing more than 25 feet per year. During Hurricane Ike, parts of Galveston Island lost more than 100 feet of shoreline, Dellapenna said.

Without some reasonable planning and action, weather-related damages are likely to increase as coastal development continues. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 39 percent of the U.S. population is concentrated in counties directly on the coastline, based on the 2010 census. If current trends continue, population along the U.S. coast will increase from 123 million to about 134 million by 2020. "Population density in shoreline counties is more than six times greater than the corresponding inland counties," said Kristen Crossett of NOAA's National Ocean Service. "The projected growth in coastal areas will increase population density at a faster rate than the country as a whole."

The good news is that efforts are underway to build and rebuild in ways that provide infrastructure resiliency and some protection from severe storms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is providing $569 million in grants to New York and New Jersey to improve wastewater and potable water treatment facilities impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Project selection reportedly will be based on rankings that include designs that provide the most protection and use of green infrastructure.

The Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) in New Jersey proposed spending $3.9 billion during the next 10 years to protect and strengthen its electric and gas systems against "increasingly frequent and severe weather conditions." PSE&G's program includes protecting more than 40 utility installations from storm surges, strengthening distribution lines, deploying smart grid technologies, and moving 20 miles of electric lines underground. During Hurricane Sandy, 2 million of the company's 2.2 million electric customers lost power.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently presented the results of a study, "A Stronger, More Resilient New York," that provides more than 250 specific recommendations expected to cost about $20 billion to fortify the city against climate events. Recommendations include installing floodwalls, levees, bulkheads, and storm surge and tidal barriers in select areas as well as constructing dune systems, restoring beaches, and expanding natural areas for wave protection. Updated zoning and construction codes also are part of the plan.

The cost to build protection and resiliency into the country's coastal infrastructure is high, and it's not clear who can or should foot most of the bill – the federal government (i.e., all taxpayers), the states, or primarily those who live and work along the coast. However, ignoring these coastal concerns and trying to clean up and repair the damage after every storm is becoming too costly – and deadly.

Bob Drake
bdrake@zweigwhite.com

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