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.

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 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.

Houses along the New Jersey shore were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. JEFFREY BRUNO

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 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.

Post-Sandy beach replenishment is equivalent to filling up an 80,000-seat stadium 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 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?

Why not start thinking now about how to relocate vulnerable infrastructure?

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 those areas that have the best chance of long-term survival, or maybe those areas that are clearly in the best national interest.

Our federal spending on coastal management and protection is entirely reactive, not proactive.

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.