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Winter 2014 Vol. 14 Number 2

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A Different Approach Needed to Reduce Coastal Risk

Beach erosion in North Carolina, ©Constance Knox/iStock/Thinkstock

An increase in population density and property development along the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S., combined with sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change, have contributed to a dramatic rise in economic losses from coastal storms and natural disasters.

The financial burden associated with these events falls primarily to the federal government, with the vast majority of funding provided only after a disaster occurs and very little dedicated to mitigation, preparedness, and planning. In addition, builders and developers bear almost none of the risk of developing hazardous areas, and local and state governments have few incentives to limit initial development or post-disaster rebuilding.

This misalignment of risk, reward, resources, and responsibility has led to inefficiencies and inappropriate incentives that ultimately increase the potential for storm-related hazards to adversely affect lives, infrastructure, and social, environmental, and cultural resources in coastal communities, a recent National Research Council report finds.

Damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, ©craftandbrand/iStock/Thinkstock

The report calls for a national vision to reduce coastal risk, which should incorporate long-term, regional solutions rather than piecemeal approaches. Risk management strategies can include both natural and built infrastructure -- such as dune building and beach nourishment, coastal wetlands, seawalls, and/or levees -- as well as policy-based approaches that move people and property out of harm’s way. The report says that historically, most risk-reduction projects have focused on fortification of property against a storm, with minimal efforts to limit redevelopment in safer, lower-risk areas.

However, the range of strategies differs in their benefits, costs, and impacts on the ecosystem. For the past 30 years, federal decisions on coastal risk reduction investments have been based largely on the economic benefits with little consideration of environmental or social benefits. The report recommends an approach to risk reduction that emphasizes investments to optimize net benefits, including environmental and social benefits, but also puts constraints on what is considered "acceptable risk" in terms of human fatalities and cultural and social resources.

To achieve a national vision, the federal government needs to work with states to conduct an assessment of coastal risk, including an inventory of present and future coastal conditions in light of long-term sea-level rise projections, the report says. The results of an assessment would show geographic patterns of lives, property, and infrastructure at risk from coastal storms and could help identify which areas are most in need of targeted risk reduction interventions.

-- Lauren Rugani

Reducing Coastal Risk on the East and Gulf Coasts. Committee on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Resources Science, Engineering, and Planning: Coastal Risk Reduction; Water Science and Technology Board and Ocean Studies Board; Division on Earth and Life Studies (2014, 208 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-30586-0; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $55.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Richard A. Luettich Jr., professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The study was funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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