Despite Sandy, Building in Risky Flood Zones Continues Unabated

Report questions how seriously policymakers and officials have taken the threat from climate change. Advocate suggests that decision was made to stay put and ‘live with the risk’

Click to expand/collapse: Some areas at risk of annual flooding (projected for 2050)
Superstorm Sandy wiped out thousands of homes at the Jersey Shore, but the increasing threat of devastating coastal storms like it has hardly deterred building in areas most at risk of chronic flooding as sea levels rise from climate change, according to a new analysis.

In a pattern repeated nationwide in more than half of coastal states, the number of new homes and reconstructed houses built in flood-prone areas during the last decade outpaced those outside such risk zones. In New Jersey, more than three times as many homes were built in low-lying coastal zones than in safer areas.

The report, jointly done by Climate Central, an independent news site run by scientists and journalists, and by Zillow, an online real estate data company, is likely to rekindle debate over land-use planning and development in coastal areas while raising questions over how seriously policymakers and local officials have taken the threats their communities face from climate change.

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While many municipalities are increasingly developing plans to adapt to sea-level rise, the recent pattern of actual construction may be a better guide to which places are taking the risks most seriously.

In New Jersey, around 2,700 new homes, worth some $2.6 billion, were put up in the flood-risk zone after 2009. That’s more than double the number North Carolina built in risky coastal areas. Many of those were reconstructed after Sandy hammered the state in 2012.

Living with the risk

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The analysis also compared counties and communities within the coastal states where there are flood-risk zones — defined as locations at risk of experiencing ocean flooding at least once per year, on average, by 2050.

Ocean County led the way, with nearly 1,300 homes built or rebuilt in flood-prone areas after 2009. Cape May ranked second with 824 homes and Atlantic County (331) ranked sixth in the analysis.

The findings failed to surprise coastal advocates and planners.

“Overall, we only are half-paying attention to the lessons of Sandy,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocacy group. “For the most part, the decision was to stay put and live with the risk. We simply don’t want to face up to the actual degree of risk of building along the Shore.’’

The report said those threats put homeowners, renters and investors in danger of steep personal and financial losses in the years ahead. How painful those risks turn out to be will depend on how well the world succeeds in making significant cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming, the analysis said.

“The results are clear. If the world makes moderate cuts to greenhouse gas pollution — roughly in line with the Paris agreement, whose targets the international community is not on track to meet — some 10,000 existing homes built after 2009 will be at risk of flooding at least once per year, on average, by 2050,’’ the report said.

Strain on coastal markets

The most recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded the world is on the brink of failing to hold global warming to even moderate levels as emissions worldwide show few signs of slowing.

If greenhouse-gas pollution rises unchecked, 49,000 of today’s new homes would lie in the flood-risk zone by century’s end, according to the new report. No state has more to lose than Florida. Unchecked emissions would put 730,000 homes, regardless of when they were built, in risk zones.

The analysis seems to back up previous studies examining how properties in flood-prone areas are frequently damaged and repaired under the national flood-insurance program. In a
study by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2017, New Jersey ranked third — behind Louisiana and Texas — in the number of claims to repair and rebuild properties damaged by repetitive floods.

A more recent analysis last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested many coastal real-estate markets will be strained by chronic tidal flooding in the next three decades as a result of climate change.

“We haven’t gotten the message,’’ said David Kutner, planning manager for New Jersey Future, a smart-growth organization. “We have this cultural and unchangeable connection to the Jersey Shore. The threats to properties are enormous. It is going take some time to get to the point where we can’t keep building at the same intensity at the Shore.’’

The Littoral Society’s Dillingham agreed. “We can plan ahead for the inevitable because some places are indefensible,’’ he said, “or the ocean will do the job for us.’’