31 Oct 2013

A Year After Sandy, The Wrong Policy on Rebuilding the Coast

One year after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast, the government is spending billions to replenish beaches that will only be swallowed again by rising seas and future storms. It’s time to develop coastal policies that take into account new climate realities.
By rob young

Since Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. East Coast a year ago, federal, state, and local governments have made an important de facto policy decision without any debate, discussion, or national plan. It is this: We will attempt to hold the nation’s shorelines in place using whatever means possible and whatever the cost. We will do this despite the undisputed scientific fact that
Jeffrey Bruno
Houses along the New Jersey shore were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
sea levels are rising and coastal erosion along these shores will only increase in the future. We will do this even though it will be environmentally damaging and the costs will be extremely high, with never-ending expenditures.

Yes, there has been much talk about building "better" and "smarter." There have been plans for increasing "resilience," which is a conveniently vague term. President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force released its long-awaited report in August. There were many good recommendations for increasing post-disaster efficiency and for using better science to understand flood risk. But one sure-fire solution for reducing vulnerability was glaringly absent: The report lacked any suggestion that we should be developing long-term plans for getting infrastructure out of high hazard areas.
Raising buildings is only a solution if you commit to holding the beaches in place forever.

Yes, there is much talk in the report about elevating structures and roads, and good suggestions about flood-proofing urban services like the power grid. Many resort communities in New Jersey have taken the call to elevate homes seriously. But elevating buildings above the hazard is only a temporary solution to coastal vulnerability. It’s like standing in a river that is rising due to a flood. You can roll up your pants or hike up your skirt, but if the water keeps rising you will get wet. Better to just step out of the water. In the year since Sandy, our response has been to roll up our pants, but sea level will continue to rise and our shorelines will continue to erode at an ever-increasing rate.

Some countries with significant investments in their coastal zones are seriously examining adaptation options that involve more than simply elevating infrastructure. The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement requires local governments to examine "managed retreat" — the abandonment of structures that are or will be impacted by sea level rise and other coastal hazards in the future. The Australian government is providing significant funding for projects that foster coastal adaptation, including the sensible abandonment of some coastal areas that will become too costly or environmentally damaging to maintain. But here in the U.S., the best we seem to be able to muster on the oceanfront is to elevate structures.

Which brings us to shoreline stabilization. Raising buildings is only a workable solution if you also commit to holding all the beaches in place . . . forever. This is what the federal government has done for New Jersey and New York. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers will be spending upward of $5 billion on shore protection projects following Hurricane Sandy. The vast
Post-Sandy beach replenishment is equivalent to filling up an 80,000-seat stadium 10 times.
majority of these funds will be spent pumping sand onto beaches from Delaware to Connecticut. The amount of sand they will move is staggering, approaching 20 to 30 million cubic yards. This is equivalent to filling up an 80,000-seat football stadium roughly 10 times.

The cumulative environmental impact on near-shore ecosystems from this level of dredging and filling is unknown. The fact that sea levels are rising tells us that in the future the costs will only be higher and the environmental impacts will only be greater. As rising sea level pushes the system even more out of equilibrium, we will have to undertake these projects more frequently and use more sand. Yet if raising houses is your primary response to coastal hazards, you have to hold the shoreline in place.

Some try to put green lipstick on these dredge-and-fill projects by calling them beach restoration. But let’s be clear: Rebuilding beaches and dunes in front of buildings is not restoration; it is engineering. The beaches and dunes are not designed to maximize their effectiveness as ecosystems. They are designed for storm protection.

The Society for Ecological Restoration has very specific guidelines for what constitutes "restoration." Beach fill projects meet none of them. For example, restoration should return an ecosystem to its former state or natural trajectory. (Dam removal is an excellent example of a restoration project that clearly returns an ecosystem to its natural trajectory.) Beach replenishment, on the other hand, is an effort to fight that natural trajectory by simply pumping sand onto a shoreline that is changing due to natural erosion or rising sea levels. Rebuilding beaches and dunes may be a "soft solution," as it is often described, but it is not restoration, nor is it environmentally benign.

The Army Corps of Engineers has so overhyped the benefits of beach nourishment that every coastal community in America is standing in line to sign up. The corps is examining 50-year projects for the entire shoreline of
Why not start thinking now about how to relocate vulnerable infrastructure?
Walton County, Florida, and for the small community of Edisto, South Carolina, among many others. When the federal government endorses spending billions to pump sand on the beaches of New York and New Jersey in an effort to provide the next 5 or 6 years of protection, how can we deny all the other communities that will also want big, expensive beaches? But should U.S. taxpayers be funding a $23 million project in a very small oceanfront community like Edisto? And what about the next coastal community, and the next?

When a moderate storm cut into a post-Sandy constructed dune (really a sand dike) along the Ocean Parkway at Gilgo Beach off Long Island in early October, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) called on the federal government to develop a 50-year commitment to holding the road in place on this narrow, low-elevation barrier island. The initial dune cost $33 million. Who knows what the costs would be to maintain that one road over the next 50 years? As a temporary solution to protect the road corridor while a longer-term solution is developed, I support the building of that dune but oppose construction of a sea wall. The fact is, however, that in 50 years rising seas and higher storm surges will probably doom that road, which sits just a few feet above sea level. Why not start thinking now about how to relocate such vulnerable infrastructure?

We may decide, as a nation, that there are certain areas of the coast that are worth spending significant amounts of money on to build artificial beaches and dunes. Wallops Island, Virginia, for example, contains important facilities for national security. But there are approximately 3,700 miles of shoreline along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. We certainly can’t, and shouldn’t, do it everywhere. The costs would be too high and the environmental damage would be significant. We need a national plan to prioritize the spending of coastal protection dollars on
Our federal spending on coastal management and protection is entirely reactive, not proactive.
those areas that have the best chance of long-term survival, or maybe those areas that are clearly in the best national interest.

At the moment our federal spending on coastal management and protection is entirely reactive, not proactive. We wait for a storm to hit a part of the coast, and then we pour money in without planning or forethought. We dump sand along hundreds of miles of beach with absolutely no understanding of the cumulative impacts to nearshore ecosystems. Indeed, in many states, it is becoming very difficult to find a natural beach — one that has not been manipulated for storm damage reduction. Once, these beaches were the homes of foraging and nesting shorebirds, infaunal organisms, turtles, etc. Now, it is the beaches themselves that have become an endangered species.

What’s needed is a new approach that acknowledges the science of coastal hazards and sea level rise. Managed retreat is not an abandonment of the coast. It is a gradual change in the footprint of vulnerable communities based on the realities of coastal hazards and rising sea levels. Storms are an opportunity to implement that change. But if the federal government is guaranteeing to keep beaches in front of your property, why would you think about moving?

Most post-Sandy rebuilding is completed or underway, so it may be too late to change course for the response to this storm. It is difficult to make hard decisions in the middle of disaster recovery. We need to develop these plans in advance, at a national level, and have them ready to implement after the next big storm.


Rob Young is professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. He is co-author, with Orrin Pilkey, of The Rising Sea. He also writes for the website In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Young criticized plans to build a 45-mile sand berm in the aftermath of the BP oil spill and wrote about a controversial coastal management plan in North Carolina.

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon


Thanks, Rob, for your leadership on coastal management and policy and attempting to teach agencies and elected officials about why our continued short-term thinking doesn't work. Even more recently we had a local dredge and fill project here in Imperial Beach, CA, and the local agency SANDAG refused to even hold an evaluation meeting locally to provide feedback on its many shortcomings.

Serge Dedina
Executive Director, WILDCOAST
Posted by Serge Dedina on 31 Oct 2013

Thanks, Rob, agreed. One important additional part of this solution, which you touch on briefly, is dam removal. In addition to managed retreat plans, one of the real, sustainable, long-term, "beach replenishment" and coastal wetland restoration solutions is to remove unnecessary and harmful dams to restore the annual transport of sediment and nutrients from our mountains and down our rivers to the coastline. The building block for miles of the coastal protection and restoration we need is currently trapped behind dams. For example, USGS studies just showed that over 60 percent of the historic sediment load that flowed down the Mississippi River every year has been eliminated due to upstream dams and other features trapping this critical material. As you know firsthand, removing dams has been shown to instantly restore sediment transport and rebuild beaches, create barrier islands, and protect coastal wetlands from rising seas. Unlike other short-term band-aid projects that don't last, dam removal is a win-win for the environment, coastal community protection, and the taxpayer's wallet! Thanks for your efforts, Rob!

Matt Stoecker
Restoration Ecologist
Posted by Matt Stoecker on 01 Nov 2013

Yes! Thanks for this. I am currently writing an op-ed for a class about coastal erosion and I am making a similar argument. As I'm sure you're aware, Orrin Pilkey wrote a similar post for the New York Times last November calling for a retreat from the beach. Alas, those pleas were not listened to and here we are a year later... The fact of the matter is that people are drawn to coasts. We are fighting a losing battle. Over 50 percent of the population lies within 50 miles of a coast, and 23 of the 25 most densely populated counties are coastal. What's more is that we as humans have yet to learn from our past mistakes: We cannot control nature and we insist on glorifying those who think they can.
Posted by Caroline Atwood, Student on 05 Nov 2013

Thanks, Rob. Please turn your attention back to Louisiana when you have time. Coastal restoration has become a 20 year legacy of failure. It is time to stop the bleeding from restoration projects that don't work, and start to offer people a way to get out. The combined effects of subsidence and sea level rise are several orders of magnitude greater than the ability of sediment diversions to build new land.
Posted by Chris McLindon on 05 Nov 2013


I haven't seen you in Delaware since that evening seven years ago when you made the dire prediction in front of a room full of surfers, that surfing at Herring Point would not be restored by the Groin Rehabilitation Project. Have you been back to monitor the project and reassess your opinion?

Herring Point is now one of the widest beaches in Delaware and has become just about the only consistent surf spot in Delaware. Thankfully, the negative impacts you and Orrin Pilkey predicted have not materialized — in fact the trend has been the opposite of what you predicted: wider beaches on both the updrift and downdrift adjacent shorelines, even after Hurricane Sandy — in contrast to other nearby areas, which suffered extensive damage requiring expensive repairs.

It is easy to dismiss all hard structures as short-sighted, and we all realize that nothing built on the oceanfront lasts forever. However, I hope you will someday visit Delaware and reassess your opinion about this project that you spoke in opposition to so passionately.

Posted by Mike Powell on 08 Nov 2013

Impressive, Rob. So much so that I re-posted on this website, where we are encouraging people to re-think the coast. You'll find good examples of rethinking, bad examples of non-thinking, actual projects, and ways for people to get involved. Please take a look, especially if you are in or around Sandyland.
Posted by John Weber on 15 Nov 2013

Oh, I was surprised. When reading the article, seemed to me that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had lost all common sense and ability.

In the absence of data on the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, went to check in PSMSL Data Explorer ( to see how fast taxpayer money was being put out. I imagined that the rise in sea level relative to the houses was accelerating, endangering all the work and taxpayer money. For this I took the longest data series, the tide gauge in the region of Atlantic City that has more than 100 years of records level.

When plotting these data and interpolating a linear law, seemed to me that the trend remained constant for over 100 years. Divide the series into two sections, a first from 1912 to 1959 and a second from 1960 to 2012. And voilá, I found the difference from 1912 to 1959 the sea was rising at a rate of 39mm (1.53in) per decade from 1960 to 2012 and a ratio of 46mm (1.81in) per decade. I.e., how had irresponsible engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not warned the president of the USA in recent years that there has been an acceleration per decade of 7mm (0.28in), or better 0.7 mm per year (0.028 in). Could use longer series of gauges of New York (The Battery), Philadelphia (Pier 9N), or Baltimore, but the results would show less variation.

Perhaps the irresponsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began back in the 60s, because they should have offered all residents of the beaches in the area to abandon their homes because by the year 2400 they will be under water.
Posted by Rogerio Maestri on 26 Nov 2013



How Warming Threatens the GeneticDiversity of Species, and Why It Matters
Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.

At Standing Rock, A Battle Over Fossil Fuels and Land
The Native American-led protest against the Dakota Access pipeline has gained global attention. In an e360 interview, indigenous expert Kyle Powys Whyte talks about the history of fossil fuel production on tribal lands and the role native groups are playing in fighting climate change.

African Wetlands Project: A Win For the Climate and the People?
In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.

How Climate Change Could Jam The World's Ocean Circulation
Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.

El Niño and Climate Change: Wild Weather May Get Wilder
This year’s El Niño phenomenon is spawning extreme weather around the planet. Now scientists are working to understand if global warming will lead to more powerful El Niños that will make droughts, floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes more intense.


Donate to Yale Environment 360