As America’s coastal cities expanded throughout the 19th century, the wetlands were often considered a nuisance that stood in the way of progress and development. Marshy areas seemed little more than endless founts of pesky insects or quagmires blocking access between drier uplands and navigable waters. As cities outgrew their dry land footprints and sought additional space to grow, the obvious answer was to simply turn the wet places into dry places. Today, these regions—from Boston’s Back Bay to New York’s Wall Street to Miami’s South Beach—comprise some of the most valuable real estate in the world.
We are increasingly learning the cost of losing landscapes once thought to be valueless. The wetlands ecosystem provided numerous services to society that we now are beginning to sorely miss. Sea levels continue to rise and the increasing frequency of extreme weather threatens our shores. Many of our commercial and recreational fisheries are struggling to rebuild to sustainable levels. Population growth continues to generate more pollution, including carbon dioxide. Coastal wetlands are perhaps nature’s most effective solution to these problems.
The loss of wetlands is a human-caused problem, and we have the capacity to reverse this trend with smart, targeted investments. In addition to obvious environmental benefits, these investments provide economic returns in two categories. First, coastal restoration investments create jobs and stimulate spending. Second—but less studied—healthy, restored ocean and coastal wetlands ecosystems provide enhanced economic value.
On the issue of employment, for example, economists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, have found that $1 million invested in coastal restoration creates 17.1 jobs on average. This compares to job growth from industrial coastal activities, such as oil and gas development, in which $1 million of investment creates an average of just 5.2 jobs.
The economic contribution of these activities, however, does not stop when workers lay down their shovels. In this report, the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America delve into the second economic metric—the ongoing economic contributions provided by healthy, restored coastal ecosystems such as wetlands, seagrass beds, and oyster reefs. An analysis of three federally funded projects reveals that investing in well-designed coastal restoration can be highly cost effective, returning significantly more than the cost of the restoration project. Averaging the benefit-cost ratios across the three restoration projects studied, each dollar invested by taxpayers returns more than $15 in net economic benefits.
These benefits include buffering storm surges; safeguarding coastal homes and businesses; sequestering carbon and other pollutants; creating nursery habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish species; and restoring open space and wildlife that support recreation, tourism, and the culture of coastal communities. The benefits are not simply environmental; they are economic and social as well. They are particularly salient in lower-income communities, where individuals frequently rely on fisheries for employment and sustenance and lack the resources to construct costly—and frequently less effective—manmade flood barriers or water treatment facilities.
In order to determine just how valuable these benefits might be, the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America collaborated with a research team at Abt Associates—a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts—to identify and analyze 3 coastal restoration sites of the 50 that NOAA funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA. Abt produced a detailed economic analysis of three sites on three different coasts that could exemplify the potential economic benefits of coastal restoration. They are an oyster reef and sea grass restoration project in the Seaside Bays of Virginia, an oyster reef project in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and salt marsh restoration in San Francisco Bay, California.
In two of the sites—the San Francisco Bay Salt Ponds and Virginia Seaside Bays—the ecosystem restoration showed highly positive returns in ecosystem-service-related benefits relative to each project’s cost at levels well above the economic output and job creation stimulated by project spending. The third site, an experimental oyster reef recovery project in Mobile Bay, did not produce sufficient data to soundly estimate the value of the ecosystem services.
The reasons for this lack of data include the scarcity of sufficient long-term research into this form of restoration, as well as the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other environmental factors, which set back oyster recruitment in the project’s artificial reef structures. Although this study is unable to fully assess Mobile Bay’s ecosystem services contributions, the project’s implementation created high employment for the amount of money invested, yielding jobs that were accessible to low-income, natural-resource-dependent workers. As a result, the project provided valuable return on investment above the project’s cost, in a region hit hard by both the financial crisis of 2009 and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.
Overall, the CAP and Oxfam analysis found that the combined economic output from project spending and the long-term ecosystem service benefits in these three locations outweigh the cost of investment by more than 15 to 1.
Of course, the economic benefits of coastal restoration enumerated in Abt’s final report have one disadvantage: They do not fit neatly into categories on the balance sheet of any one particular industry, corporation, or individual. Because of this, they have not been accounted for in coastal resource management decisions to date. Hopefully, the data discussed in this report will convince resource managers in federal, state, and local governments, as well as private-sector entities, to consider additional investments in coastal ecosystem restoration. This report and others have shown that these investments have clear benefits to communities and coastally dependent industries.
The following sections of this report will describe what coastal restoration projects entail and the methodology behind the findings about these three case studies. It will then move to an overall summary of the economic benefits of coastal restoration and a brief description of existing knowledge about the jobs created by NOAA’s use of ARRA funds and the potential for additional employment benefits from the nearly 800 shovel-ready projects that could get underway tomorrow if adequate investment became available.
Finally, the report concludes with the following recommendations for future action:
- Federal, regional, and private-sector entities should increase their investment in coastal ecosystem restoration projects and fund ongoing monitoring of previously restored areas.
- Congress should enact and fund the National Endowment for the Oceans.
- The state and federal agencies planning the use of funds from BP’s fines resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster should focus on investing in ecosystem restoration projects that create employment for communities that were adversely affected by the disaster and support long-term ecosystem recovery.
- Federal, regional, state, and local coastal planners should give greater weight to natural solutions such as coastal wetlands restoration to protect at-risk developed areas.
- The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA; U.S. Department of the Interior, or DOI; and NOAA should work with the Economic Development Association and the U.S. Department of Labor, or DOL, to develop new pathways into ecosystem restoration careers in craft trades and science, technology, education, and math.
- NOAA or other partner organizations should seek funding to apply the evaluation techniques used in this report to the 47 other coastal restoration projects funded by the ARRA to broaden the scope of this analysis and provide a stronger foundation for future decisions.
President George H. W. Bush, recognizing these benefits, implemented a federal policy mandating there would be “no net loss” of coastal wetlands in the United States in 1989. Every president since has upheld this policy. But we are failing to achieve even this status-quo target. NOAA released a major report on the “Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coastal Watersheds of the Conterminous United States” in 2004. That report found that 16 years after President Bush’s implemented this policy, the United States was losing its wetlands at the staggering rate of more than 59,000 acres per year.
When NOAA released the updated version of this report covering the years 2004 to 2009 in February, the rate of coastal wetland loss in the United States had accelerated to more than 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands annually—equivalent to seven football fields disappearing every hour of every day. The aggregate result is that the United States lost an area of wetlands larger than the state of Rhode Island between 1998 and 2009.
Investing in coastal restoration is good policy. It is not just the right thing to do for the environment; it is the right thing to do for coastal communities, vulnerable coastal populations, and the U.S. economy. In the words of former NOAA Chief Economist Dr. Linwood Pendleton, “restoring degraded marine and coastal habitat is critical if America’s coasts and oceans are to reach their economic and ecological potential.”
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Jeffrey Buchanan is a senior domestic policy advisor at Oxfam America. Shiva Polefka is a Research Associate for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.
- “Estimating the Change in Ecosystem Service Values from Coastal Restoration” and the report’s appendices by Abt Associates
- Factsheet: “The Economic Benefits of Restoring Coastal Ecosystems” by Michael Conathan, Jeffrey Buchanan, and Shiva Polefka
The Fifth Assessment Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released September 27, cautioned that the effects of climate change will continue to worsen due to existing and projected atmospheric levels of carbon and other climate pollutants. IPCC Co-Chair Thomas Stocker warned that “heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less.” This growing threat of extreme weather heightens the urgency to increase U.S. communities’ resilience to future extreme weather events.
Fortunately, President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan includes the first-ever community resilience program, “Building Stronger and Safer Communities and Infrastructure.” A key element will direct existing federal funds to help communities undertake their resilience plans:
The President will direct federal agencies to identify and remove barriers to making climate-resilient investments; identify and remove counterproductive policies that increase vulnerabilities; and encourage and support smarter, more resilient investments, including through agency grants, technical assistance, and other programs, in sectors from transportation and water management to conservation and disaster relief. Agencies will also be directed to ensure that climate risk-management considerations are fully integrated into federal infrastructure and natural resource management planning.
These new funds are an important start, but additional resources are needed to help communities nationwide become more resilient to extreme weather events. Another important element of the president’s plan to invest in community resilience is the guidance from state and local experts. The Climate Action Plan establishes a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness “to advise on key actions the federal government can take to better support local preparedness and resilience-building efforts.”
The members of this task force will likely include governors, mayors, and other officials who have experienced severe and destructive extreme weather events, and/or have taken steps to protect their constituents from future disasters. Now that the government shutdown—driven by House Republicans—has ended, the Obama administration will likely announce the task force members in the coming days or weeks.
The task force must focus on addressing some important gaps in our federal disaster-relief and resilience programs, including:
- Lack of data and information about federal disaster-relief and community resilience spending
- Lack of dedicated federal revenue to invest in community resilience
- Special efforts to assist low-income communities affected by extreme weather
- Changes in existing federal disaster law to enhance investments in resilience
To fill these gaps, here are five critical assignments President Obama should give the Task Force on Climate Preparedness after its members have been formally appointed.
Determine the annual cost of federal disaster relief by state
For future federal, state, and local budget-planning purposes, it is essential that government officials know the total amount of annual federal disaster-recovery spending, as well as the amount each state receives for disaster relief. The taxpayers who finance this disaster relief have a right to know too. Yet the Center for American Progress’s recent issue brief, “States of Denial,” was the first comprehensive estimate of states’ disaster-recovery receipts for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. No such analysis exists for other years, as best we can determine.
Determine the cost of future community resilience needs
New York City has a $19.5 billion plan to address vulnerabilities exposed by Superstorm Sandy, particularly damage from sea-level rise and storm surges. Miami Beach must spend $200 million to overhaul its outdated drainage system threatened by sea-level rise, even though its operating and capital budgets for FY 2013/14 is only $50 million. But we cannot identify a credible, comprehensive assessment of communities’ costs to address floods, storms, sea-level rise, heat waves, and wildfires. The price tag for this work will likely add up to hundreds of billions of dollars, but the federal government simply does not know. Federal legislators and officials must understand the cost of protecting people and businesses from future extreme weather events.
Identify dedicated revenue sources for federal investments in community resilience
The Superstorm Sandy emergency-aid law included billions of federal dollars for New Jersey and New York’s resilience efforts. But this is the exception, not the rule. A recent CAP analysisidentified only $22 billion in federal resilience investments in FY 2011 and 2012, compared to $138 billion in disaster-recovery funds—or $1 for prevention for every $6 dedicated to cleanup and restoration. What’s more, many states and communities lack the funds to adequately protect their residents from extreme weather events. Oklahoma communities, for example, do not have enough storm shelters because federal funds “dried up in past years,” according toThe Wall Street Journal.
Resilience investments will save lives and protect businesses, and they will also save taxpayers money by reducing future federal disaster-recovery expenditures. Research preparedfor the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, estimated that every $1 invested in community resilience reduces disaster damages by $4.
At a Clinton Global Initiative event earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) noted:
To invest $3 billion to $4 billion, to try to prevent another $39 billion in losses, or mitigate it? It seems to me to be, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a pretty smart investment to make for the country.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and 39 other U.S. representatives have urged the Obama administration to develop ideas for reliable investments in resilience. The Task Force on Climate Preparedness should identify potential revenue sources that can consistently assist communities in improving their protection from future extreme weather.
Identify policies that address the needs of low-income communities
A 2012 CAP report determined that the most-severe extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012 typically harmed households with incomes at or below the national median household income level. Another CAP report, released this past August, proposed a number of recommendations to address this problem, including:
- Increasing affordable housing
- Providing additional assistance with utility-bill payments for low-income households under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP
- Extending unemployment insurance in declared disaster areas
The task force should review these proposals and identify additional policies that would help protect low-income households and other vulnerable people from future disasters, as well as ensure adequate resilience investments in these communities.
Identify improvements to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act that enhance community resilience
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act governs federal emergency disaster-relief spending under FEMA. It does not, however, require communities receiving FEMA funds to rebuild buildings and infrastructure so that they are more resilient to future climate extreme weather events. The same is true for federal disaster-recovery aid from other departments, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation.
To address this challenge, the CAP report “Shelter from the Superstorm” makes the following recommendation:
To avoid spending taxpayer dollars on rebuilding the same vulnerable structures over and over again, the Department of Housing and Urban Development—or HUD—FEMA, and other federal agencies should require that rebuilding projects supported by federal disaster assistance are resilient to extreme weather and other climate changes. Congress should amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to assure that all FEMA-funded reconstruction is designed to better withstand future extreme weather and other climate-change impacts.
In addition to this change, the Task Force on Climate Preparedness should identify federal disaster programs that could provide technical assistance to recovering communities to help them rebuild more resilient homes, businesses, and infrastructure.
Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Capps, and 27 of their colleagues recently sent a letter to a senior FEMA official, asking the agency whether states include climate risks in their hazardous-mitigation plans. The task force should seek answers to this and the other questions raised in the letter. Finally, the task force should assess whether there are other legislative or executive reforms that would increase community resilience after climate-related disasters.
The goal of the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness is to address a pressing problem—destruction and damage from extreme weather—that scientists warn us will worsen in the coming years. It is therefore essential that the president charge this task force with addressing knowledge gaps about our expenditures for federal disaster relief and investments in community resilience, identifying federal revenue sources to increase resilience investments and protect our most vulnerable citizens, and proposing changes in policies that are essential to achieve these goals. Without addressing these needs, the task force would leave a major portion of climate preparedness undone and our lives and livelihood still vulnerable to extreme weather from climate change.
Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.
Gov. Chris Christie’s frustration with beachfront landowners refusing to grant easements for dune reconstruction after Sandy has come to its logical conclusion. The Governor signed an executive order today authorizing legal action against holdouts so that protective dunes can be rebuilt.
In a statement, Gov. Christie said, “As we rebuild from Superstorm Sandy, we need to make sure we are stronger, more resilient and prepared for future storms, and dunes are a major component of this process. We can no longer be held back from completing these critical projects by a small number of owners who are selfishly concerned about their view while putting large swaths of homes and businesses around them at risk.’
Not coincidentally, the order comes at the same time as a settlement in a long-running lawsuit over compensation demanded by a Harvey’s Cedars couple in exchange for a dune reconstruction easement. This past summer, the NJ Supreme Court overturned a prior judgement that of $350,000 in favor of the landowner. The Court ruled that the valuation didn’t include the storm protection benefits of the dune conferred to the property and sent the case back to the drawing board. In the settlement, the state agreed to pay the landowners compensation totaling all of $1.
There are an estimated 1000 holdouts on the Jersey shore. After today’s developments, they won’t last very long.
By Bill Kovarik
Republished from The Daily Climate under Creative Commons License.
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Weary of debating the causes of climate change, mayors and other elected officials from Virginia’s battered coastal regions gathered here last week and agreed that local impacts have become serious enough to present a case for state action.
“We are here to ask for your assistance,” said Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim. “It’s a threat we can no longer afford to ignore.”
So far, assistance from the state level has been paltry and grudging at best. In 2011, a group of coastal scientists and planners, with the backing of mayors like Fraim, were asked to study the problems, but only after tea-party conservatives in the state Legislature insisted that “recurrent flooding” – and not climate change – would be the study’s sole focus.
The report, Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia was released in February and did indeed point to increasing local problems from sea-level rise. Among these were the delivery of vital services to the world’s largest navy base located in Norfolk, where a tide gauge shows a sea level rise of 14.5 inches over the past century and rising.
The meeting drew a capacity crowd of 250 local emergency planners, regional federal officials, Virginia mayors and a smattering of state representatives. It was intended to provide a turning point for a political response to sea-level rise in Virginia.
State senator John Watkins, an influential Republican from Richmond, agreed with the mayors and planners. He also insisted that debating climate change is counterproductive. “That’s what people like Ken Cuccinelli want to do,” Watkins said of Virginia’s conservative attorney general and GOP gubernatorial candidate. “They want to debate climate change. I refuse to debate that.”
“The fact of the matter is, we’ve got rising waters,” Watkins added. “We’ve got recurrent flooding. There are more 100-year storms in the last 15 years than we’ve ever seen. Somebody has got to deal with it.” Watkins said he would be proposing a state legislative study commission in the next legislative session.
That same urgent tone grounded the themes of a dozen local government speakers at the meeting, which also focused on legal methods to empower them in a state system where the Legislature has considerable sway.
‘Increasingly dangerous landscape’
“Virginia’s coastal communities were being left alone and blind to wander across an increasingly dangerous landscape by inaction on the part of federal and state government,” said Skip Styles of Wetlands Watch, one of the non-governmental organizations involved in the conference and working on coastal issues.
Some cities have found it difficult to engage residents. “The reality is that we can no longer live where we thought we could live, and build where we thought we could build, and that is just very hard to swallow,” said Hampton city mayor Molly Ward.
Overcoming climate denial
One note was repeatedly sounded over the course of the meeting, held at the campus of the College of William and Mary: The political challenge of overcoming climate denial is hampering local efforts to respond to and plan for changes already underway.
“I’m often hit with the idea that there’s no proof that (climate change) is happening,” said Lewis “Lewie” Lawrence, director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. “And I say, ‘There’s plenty of proof,’ and I’ll pull out the Sewell’s Point tide gauge, and they say, ‘Oh, they make that stuff up.'”
Maps show old islands in the Chesapeake Bay that today have disappeared beneath a rising sea, Lawrence said. “And people still say, ‘Those islands were never there, they’re making this up.’ ”
There are signs that the state could be turning a corner. The once-dominant tea party conservatives now appear to be fading; the states moderates are pushing back against the conservative policies of recent years. Coastal officials and planners hope that they can take advantage of the window and plan a coordinated and rational approach to sea-level rise and storm management.
“We’re not retreating,” said Dave Hansen, a former Corps of Engineers regional director and now deputy city manager of Virginia Beach. “We’re going to elevate.”
Added Norfolk’s Mayor Fraim: “Someone has to own this issue… The water is coming.”
Bill Kovarik is a frequent contributor to The Daily Climate and a professor of communication at Radford University in Southwestern Virginia. The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, climate change and environmental issues.
There’s a risk, when coming late to an issue that’s been festering for years, that we might miss some of the nuance that make the issue so intractably difficult. But we’re finding that the Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. dispute is much clearer without any extra local-colorful details. When the 9th Circuit denied an injunction this week, it seemed to us to be the most obvious result to the most simple of problems.
At it’s most basic, the case is most understandable. In 1972 the United States purchased the site for permanent marine protection, which was then conferred as part of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act in 1976. To ease the transition to wilderness, the U.S. granted a 40-year lease to the ongoing oyster company business. In 2004 — more than 32 years into a 40 year lease — a new owner takes over, indisputably aware of the pending expiration date.
As the 9th Circuit Court describes it:
In letting the permit lapse, the Secretary emphasized the importance of the long-term environmental impact of the decision on Drakes Estero, which is located in an area designated as potential wilderness. He also underscored that, when Drakes Bay purchased the property in 2005, it did so with eyes wide open to the fact that the permit acquired from its predecessor owner was set to expire just seven years later, in 2012.
Now, a whole lot of other stuff happened, and a lot of other law was invoked (dealt with by the majority opinion in 37 pdf pages), but none of it changed the fundamental legal nature of the problem. When the U.S. declined to renew the lease, at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior, consistent with a wilderness designation by Congress in 1976, it shouldn’t have been to anyone’s surprise. And certainly not to anyone’s property rights expectation. As a general rule of property, leases are up when leases are up.
Summer Arctic Sea Ice Retreat: May – August 2013
From NASA: “The melting of sea ice in the Arctic is well on its way toward its annual “minimum,” that time when the floating ice cap covers less of the Arctic Ocean than at any other period during the year. 2013’s melt rates are in line with the sustained decline of the Arctic ice cover observed by NASA and other satellites over the last several decades. In this animation, the daily Arctic sea ice and seasonal land cover change progress through time, from May 16, 2013, through Aug. 15, 2013.” More here.
Tidbits and factoids From NASA
- This year’s melting season included a fast retreat of the sea ice during the first half of July. But low atmospheric pressures and clouds over the central Arctic kept temperatures up north cooler than average, slowing down the plunge.
- With about three weeks of melting left, the summer minimum in 2013 is unlikely to be a record low.
- The Arctic sea ice cap has significantly thinned over the past decade and is now very vulnerable to melt. The multiyear ice cover, consisting of thicker sea ice that has survived at least two summers, has declined at an even faster rate than younger, thinner ice.
- Recordkeeping, which began in November 1978, shows an overall downward trend of 14.1 percent per decade in the size of the minimum summer extent, a decline that accelerated after 2007.
In what the State of Maryland is touting as the first of its kind, a new, 221-acre “coastal resilience easement” has been acquired to protect the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park and Scenic Byway on Maryland’s eastern shore.
In an announcement, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said, “Because of our State’s vulnerability to sea level rise — especially in our coastal communities — we must now consider the possible impacts of flooding and storm surge when we look to conserve our open space. This first-of-its-kind easement will not only protect a significant natural and historic area from development, it also includes requirements that address the threat of climate change.”
Indeed, Maryland is particularly susceptible to sea level rise and coastal flooding. Over the past century, Maryland has lost 13 islands in the Chesapeake Bay, with several more threatened. Maryland has long maintained a strategic land conservation effort to set aside park lands and to protect sensitive lands and important habitat, but this easement is the first acquisition specifically designated for coastal resilience.
According to the announcement, “Coastal Resilience Easements are designed to protect areas that may be prone to high waters and storm surge by permanently eliminating development, restricting impervious surfaces, protecting areas that allow wetlands to migrate, and requiring periodic Soil Conservation and Water Quality plan updates — all of which can help natural areas more quickly recover from flooding.”
President Obama designated the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument this past spring, and legislation is pending to develop a National Historic Park at the location. The monument’s consists of federal and state lands in and it includes properties that are highly significant to Tubman’s early years, including the Brodess plantation where the heroic Harriet Tubman was enslaved.
As the Park Service describes it, “You won’t see Harriet Tubman represented here in structures and statues, rather, she is memorialized in the land, water, and sky of the Eastern Shore where she was born and where she returned again and again to free others. Tubman would easily recognize this place. The landscapes and waterways that she navigated and used for sanctuary on her Underground Railroad missions have changed little from her time.” One specific site is Stewart’s Canal, “dug by hand by free and enslaved people between 1810 and 1832 for commercial transportation,” according to the Park Service, “Tubman learned important outdoor skills navigating the canal and when she worked in nearby timbering operations with her father, Ben Ross.”
The problem is that much of this history is dangerously close to sea level now.
According to a recent progress report, the New Orleans of today is perhaps better off than the New Orleans before Katrina. There’s economic and entrepreneurial growth, renewed parks and recreation infrastructure and opportunities, and vibrant-as-ever arts and cultural communities. By many measures, the reconstruction is coming along nicely.
However, as the report puts it, “Creating a new New Orleans will mean little if it cannot be protected for the long-term.” Indeed, there is a lot riding on the 50-year, $50-billion plan to fortify New Orleans against rising waters and storms. But the deterioration of the Louisiana coast puts the comeback at risk.
Recent reports on the status of new levees and flood control systems, maintenance and financial issues, and current evacuation routes describe significant improvements but also significant worries about the region’s vulnerabilities. One can sense the civic seriousness and the broad determination to never face a Katrina-like disaster ever again. There’s a deeper understanding that levees and gates and flood walls defending the city need a more robust coastal buffer.
The restoration work itself can energize parts of the region’s economy. If done properly and successfully, the report’s authors said, restoration could “become the defining event for New Orleans — instead of Katrina.”
That is a hopeful thought as the eighth anniversary of the disaster approaches. And it would be an amazing accomplishment. But why not? Hard work has brought our region back from unimaginable damage, so why shouldn’t we be able to save the coast as well? And really, we must.
In a new study, published today in Nature Climate Change, economists have tallied up the future costs of flooding in the 136 largest coastal cities in the world, and determined that if we do nothing at all, the bill in 2050 could be upwards of $1 trillion each year. However, if we invest now in flood defenses and other measures, the bill will “only” be some $60 billion. The author tells Mother Jones that without more preparation, “even in cities that are very well-protected today, losses will reach levels that are completely impossible to imagine.”
The risks in coastal cities are compounding: sea levels are rising while coastal lands are subsiding. Meanwhile, coastal populations are rising as well as coastal property values. The study points out the logical result: when floods occur in the future, they will be worse, they will affect more people and properties, and the same damage will be more costly.
New York, Miami, New Orleans, Boston and Tampa are among the top 20 global cities with the most at stake. Guangzhou, China and Mumbai, India are at the top of the list.
It will take not only stronger infrastructure and better-engineered flood defenses, but also better management of growth and development along vulnerable shorelines, and well-managed retreat from some of the most vulnerable locations. Preparing now — not later — will help keep costs down.
UPDATE 8/19: More here from Climate Central.