Retreating from the Beach: Easier Said Than Done

There’s an Op-Ed from Professor Orrin H. Pikey in the November 15, 2012 New York Times. Here’s some “fair use” of that article.

We Need to Retreat From the Beach


Durham, N.C.

AS ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms. And as sea levels continue to rise, the surges of these future storms will be higher and even more deadly. We can’t stop these powerful storms. But we can reduce the deaths and damage they cause.

Hurricane Sandy’s immense power, which destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, actually pushed the footprints of the barrier islands along the South Shore of Long Island and the Jersey Shore landward as the storm carried precious beach sand out to deep waters or swept it across the islands. This process of barrier-island migration toward the mainland has gone on for 10,000 years.

Yet there is already a push to rebuild homes close to the beach and bring back the shorelines to where they were. The federal government encourages this: there will be billions available to replace roads, pipelines and other infrastructure and to clean up storm debris, provide security and emergency housing. Claims to the National Flood Insurance Program could reach $7 billion. And the Army Corps of Engineers will be ready to mobilize its sand-pumping dredges, dump trucks and bulldozers to rebuild beaches washed away time and again.

But this “let’s come back stronger and better” attitude, though empowering, is the wrong approach to the increasing hazard of living close to the rising sea. Disaster will strike again. We should not simply replace all lost property and infrastructure. Instead, we need to take account of rising sea levels, intensifying storms and continuing shoreline erosion.

This is not the time for a solution based purely on engineering. The Army Corps undoubtedly will be heavily involved. But as New Jersey and New York move forward, officials should seek advice from oceanographers, coastal geologists, coastal and construction engineers and others who understand the future of rising seas and their impact on barrier islands. We need more resilient development, to be sure. But we also need to begin to retreat from the ocean’s edge.


I agree with much of what it has to say. But …

The problem is that a retreat is easier said than done.  There is a very strong reliance interest and a very strong political will to stay put and rebuild.  We are, as some of my critics like to point out, talking about communities.  So, while Professor Pike has good points, the real social engineering challenge is figuring out how to sculpt laws that balance the interests of people who have been encouraged by government to build their homes and businesses on and near the beach in an era in which it is increasingly apparent that doing so is a very costly decision.

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