Flooding in New Jersey shoreline community
(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

Among the many points driven home by the likely climate change-fueled destruction and property losses unleashed by recent hurricanes and torrential rains: A lot of U.S. homes are in harm’s way from sea-level rise, storm surges, and punishing winds.

If they’re damaged, odds are they’ll be rebuilt at the same locations, remaining in harm’s way. Some see it as a witch’s brew born of a National Flood Insurance Program that pays to put shoreline homes back where they were and municipal property tax systems dependent on pricey shoreline homes for their communities’ fiscal base.

Together they have made the word retreat an unmentionable “r” word.

Expert after expert on climate change and shoreline development says some form of the same thing: Flood insurance is well-intentioned, but it provides opportunity for people to build and rebuild in areas where they shouldn’t, and comfort in knowing that if they do, they won’t suffer a big financial loss.

The federal government has funded thousands of buyouts – aka the “r” word – along shorelines inland and coastal. A Natural Resources Defense Council report cautions there are more to come: “By the end of this century, as many as 13 million people in the United States will see their homes affected by sea-level rise.”

In an update to their report, “Ocean at the Door: New Homes and the Rising Sea,” Climate Central and Zillow found that housing growth in one-third of all coastal states is higher in 10-year flood risk zones than in safer locations.

In Connecticut it’s more than three times higher, and in Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Rhode Island more than twice as high.

New Jersey, Florida, and North Carolina have allowed the most homes built in risk zones, more than 9,000 since 2010. More than 24 cities – including New York, Tampa, Virginia Beach, Charleston, and Galveston – have allowed at least 100 homes built in risk zones since 2010.

The numbers are head-slapping for those same climate and shoreline experts. Even if those homes are built higher and stronger, they’re still just temporary fixes, they say.

Such fixes will become a cycle of artificially increasing costs using taxpayer dollars to fortify homes. That in turn increases those home values, which in turn means there’s still higher investment to protect when the next storm hits, which leads one to want to rebuild again. The circle is unbroken.

So, are there some creative ideas out there for alternatives to rebuilding or retreating? Consider the views of several experts.

Retrofitting: Reinforcing bad decisions already made

Laura Lightbody is project director, flood-prepared communities, with Pew Charitable Trusts. She says several cities and states are at least beginning to figure out what to do, including Virginia Beach, which recently denied a building request in a flood-prone area. “You don’t see that very often,” she says.

Because the federal government has only limited authority, she says the solutions need to start with local planners and other elected officials. They need to decide whether to prioritize affordable flood insurance or keep homes out of high-risk areas.

Lightbody says she supports restricting the use of federal dollars in high flood-risk areas and essentially buying down future risk by not putting more assets and lives in harm’s way. “Trying to retrofit – that’s just reinforcing bad decisions that have already been made,” she says.

Moving forward, she believes there should be no subsidized flood insurance for new construction and no new construction, schools or hospitals in high-risk areas “so we’re not back here in 50 years having this same conversation,” she says.

A time calling for ‘pretty radical solutions’

Economist Andy Keeler, program head, public policy and coastal sustainability, at East Carolina University’s Coastal Studies Institute, is a former member of climate change policy teams in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

In his home town of Nags Head, North Carolina, he says, ocean-front homes pay a special tax for beach nourishment projects. “It significantly raises the cost of developing there,” he says. “How effective that’s going to be? I don’t know.”

So instead, he and some colleagues are playing with what he calls “a sort of hair-brained future idea” involving “buyouts with rent backs.”

The local government would buy out at-risk properties and then rent them back to the now-former owners for a fixed period of time, or until they hit some trigger – say a certain number of major hurricanes or floods.

“It’s designed to give local governments a more predictable glide path to ramp down instead of facing a major financial loss if many owners take buyouts at once,” he says.

The approach also could save on ongoing expenses of beach armoring, flood insurance subsidies for older houses, and emergency response costs and other post-disaster assistance.

“It’s a radical notion, but we’re going to be living in times that call for pretty radical solutions,” he says. “In terms of thinking about how to manage eventual retreat, that’s the best one that I’ve come up with. I actually am mildly proud of it.”

An approach ‘very practical and cost effective’

Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, has been preaching the gospel of shoreline retreat for – well, a long, long time. Now he and his colleagues have crunched numbers to show the financial reasons on top of the environmental ones.

In “Coastal Hazards & Targeted Acquisitions: A Reasonable Shoreline Management Alternative,” they describe their first case study at North Topsail Beach, north of Cape Fear on the North Carolina coast. They calculated the cost of targeted acquisitions – which includes purchasing properties, removal costs, and lost tax revenues – versus the benefits – which include reduced expenditures for coastal protection and cleanup, engineering design/permitting, and maintenance.

For North Topsail Beach, using conservative assumptions, they calculated costs of $54.8 million with inflation and benefits of $57.6 million, a $2.8 million savings over 30 years.

“We’re just trying to suggest to people that it’s actually not impractical. In some places, like this first case study, it’s in fact very practical and cost effective,” Young says. “This should be at least one of the tools in the toolkit when trying to figure out how to manage an eroding shoreline.”

Young says he would like to see communities do this kind of analysis when looking at storm protection projections and then spend money to protect that part of the tax base that would be the most sustainable long term: “Whatever we can do to change the calculus and make property owners responsible for the risk,” he says.

He also would like to see all money yanked from resort communities – including through laws that pay to rebuild infrastructure – and to make flood insurance more market-based.

“We’re spending a huge amount of money with almost no vision or guidance,” he says.

Changing the culture … and the mentality

Connecticut is often overlooked as a chronic sufferer of climate change-related storms and flooding even after the walloping the state took in consecutive years from Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy.

The Climate Central/Zillow report finding that the state is developing housing in risky zones at three times the rate of development in safer zones elicited this reaction from Bruce Hyde at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research: “At some point risk-based premiums are going to have to come into play.”

Hyde says he also would like limits for repetitive loss properties over a set period of time. “You get two shots for flood insurance and the third time you’re on your own.” And he’s for special taxing districts for vulnerable properties to fund repairs and resilience to keep the burden off the rest of the town.

He has an ally in George Bradner, the property and casualty director for the state’s insurance department. Bradner is a fan of an idea floated prior to the Trump administration – that FEMA’s reimbursement rate after climate-related disasters be based on how much mitigation the state has been doing, rather than on the existing 75 percent. The more you do, the more you get.

“If you’re not doing anything and you’re just there with your hand out every time there’s a disaster, there should be a repercussion,” he says, adding that at some point companies will just stop writing property insurance policies in high-risk areas.

“We’ve got to change the culture and the mentality,” Hyde says, noting the difficulty of getting people to pay for something for which they may never experience benefits.

“What I think it’s going to take is a bunch of storms that create some kind of economic hardship for people until they realize they can’t continue to do the same thing over and over again.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a long-time Connecticut-based journalist whose career has included radio, television, print, and digital reporting. She has won awards for her reporting on energy, environment, climate...