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Opinion: Learning to Live with Our Addiction to Hazardous Sites by Water

We have enough information to do a far better job of planning for the inevitable disaster, but we focus on tactics rather than strategies

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

People have always lived near water. We depended on it not just for drinking water, but also for transportation, food, and waste removal. River flooding brought moisture and nutrients to our farms.

As long as people were aware of flooding hazards, lived in homes that were easily replaced or cleaned up, and knew to get themselves out of harm’s way when floods came, life near water was a balance of acceptable risks and rewards.

But as populations grew, the complexity of society and its buildings increased, and the reasons for being near water changed, as did the balance of risk and reward. More particularly, who is affected by and pays for the risks and who benefits from them have changed. Some types of developments require water access, such as ports, marinas, and beachfront parks. Others, such as homes, do not.

We face critical questions about living in hazardous locations near water. The benefits of being near water are obvious, and accrue to the landowners, first of all, and then to society in terms of wealth creation, jobs, and taxes. The costs affect all the same parties, but in different ways. When addressing risks from floods and storm surges, what responsibilities should landowners have and what should be the function of society at large?

We can divide this question of risks into two parts. First, we have historic risks. Rivers, tidal areas, and the coast are subject to floods. We have records that give us the ability to estimate the probability of flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) adopts Flood Insurance Rate Maps that are used as the basis for flood insurance rates and often for regulatory purposes. Various agencies develop flooding models that can help forecast how high river floods will get during different types of storms. Further, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed the Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model.

The risks from flooding are very well known. We have government regulatory programs that limit (but generally do not prohibit) development in such areas, and government flood insurance programs that the private sector will not provide.

Second, we have future risks. We know that average rainfall and the intensity of rainfall in New Jersey have been increasing and are predicted to increase more. We know that sea level has been rising for the past century, and will continue to rise and probably accelerate. We know that, on average, the upper layers of the ocean have been increasing in temperature, which helps drive the intensity and lasting power of coastal and tropical storms. The result is that future risks will not be the same as past risks, but rather will be higher.

How, then, should risks be apportioned between landowners and society? Should the balance be different for historic and future risks? Should we reduce the risks of development near water over time, to what extent, and who should be responsible?

These are major issues with enormous consequences for landowners and society. Given that New Jersey suffered major damages from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, and from Hurricane Sandy the very next year, it would be reasonable to expect that New Jersey, including our state government and many other parts of our society, would be intensely interested in addressing these issues through a comprehensive process. That expectation has not been met.

Instead, the focus has been on rebuilding the shore, for better or for worse depending on the location. Hurricane Irene, which caused near-record flooding, seems a distant memory. The significant changes seem more tactical (homes that are rebuilt on stilts) than strategic, with the rare exception of home buyouts in a handful of towns along rivers and back bays. New York City in 2013 released “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” developed in just eight months after Hurricane Sandy, to determine in considerable detail how the city could use the rebuilding process and other actions to reduce future risks and increase resilience to remaining risks.

While individual municipalities in New Jersey have taken similar actions, notably Hoboken, the state as a whole seems heavily focused on recovery, which is reasonable and appropriate. Unfortunately, it is not also focused on planning for an uncertain but hazardous future. The New Jersey 2014 Hazard Mitigation Plan acknowledges the potential increase in damages related to climate change and sea-level rise, but its risk assessments are modeled on past conditions. There is no comprehensive strategic approach that knits together all the actions that state and local governments can and should take. The plan provides a good overview of existing programs, but is not really a policy document that moves us forward.

One difficulty in pursuing a strategic vision to mitigate future risks is that we have no consensus on who should be responsible for the costs, the risks, and changes in how we live, work, and do business. There is no doubt that reaching any sort of consensus will require a great deal of discussion, information, and debate, and will be fraught with difficulties. When we look at how complex and difficult issues have been resolved historically, often it has been in reaction to real or perceived crises. Think back to the passage of federal laws as diverse as the Clean Water Act and the Homeland Security Act. Rivers on fire and 9/11 triggered enough consensus to achieve change.

Unfortunately, the period after major floods and storms is the worst time to achieve this consensus. As should be expected, most of the attention, funding, and energy is focused on recovery. The best time to address risk reduction and resilience is before the disaster, and yet that is when the political and social environments are least prone to action. What is the potential for consensus on the storm-damage risks that should trigger a decision to restrict or redirect redevelopment?

We know storms will happen. They always have and they always will. We know that our barrier islands are naturally unstable, and that our river flood plains and back-bay developments are at risk. We know that sea level rise and changing rainfall patterns will increase those risks, in many places by a lot. We know that each major storm will be very expensive in terms of damages, recovery costs, social change, and long-term health impacts. We know that some people can afford to recover and some cannot. We know these things. But planning for them apparently is not in our social DNA.

Professionals in the affected fields are discussing these issues, tentatively and with great concern for potential backlash from society and from politicians. Some elected and appointed officials are being upfront on these issues, for which we should all be grateful. Our best chances would come from society demanding that our governments, agencies, and organizations confront these issues through a process that engages the public with good information and searches for better answers. Getting that social buy-in will require leadership from both the public and the private sector.

We aren’t there yet, and I have no predictions as to when we will be. I keep hoping. My fear, however, is that it will take another two or three hurricanes like Sandy and Irene to force the development of better approaches.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently associate professor of practice for water, society, and environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources and watershed and regional environmental management. With Karen O’Neill, he is co-editor and co-author of “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy” from Rutgers University Press. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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