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The answer to coastal flooding is not more cement

The answer to coastal flooding is not more cement

For decades, governments have built higher levees and concrete barriers as the answer to protecting life and property from damaging coastal storms and flooding. Surrounding ourselves with concrete isn’t a solution — water always finds a way.

Part of the solution is far more fundamental. It’s called natural infrastructure. That simply means incorporating natural landscapes such as marshes, barrier islands and oyster reefs to minimize flood and storm damage. And while nothing will stop a nine-foot storm surge, it’s worth noting that coastal wetlands prevented $625 million in direct property damages during Hurricane Sandy.

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The collision of surging coastal development with increasingly frequent and severe storms fueled by climate change is lethal and devastating. The number of billion-dollar-damage disaster events — the majority of them coastal storms — is escalating dramatically. In each of the 38 years from 1980-2017 in the U.S., there was an average of 5.8 weather events per year each costing more than a billion dollars in damages. In just the five years from 2013-2017, the average ballooned to 11.6 such events. 

At the recent Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, foundations pledged to spend nearly half a billion dollars on natural solutions to reduce the impacts of climate change. While stopping deforestation is critical — it is also imperative that some of that money be invested in climate-adapted natural infrastructure on our coasts.

We have cemented over our coasts’ natural defenses with beachfront high-rises and drained the marshes to build subdivisions, all as 40 percent of America’s population crowds into that 10 percent of our land mass that is coastal.

You see it from the beachfronts of the Carolinas to the shores of the Delmarva Peninsula to marshlands of southern Louisiana, where the land has been disappearing at the astonishing rate of one football field every 100 minutes since the 1930s.

So how do we get out of the cement mixer?

First, all levels of government can take greater action to protect the natural barriers that exist and help restore those that have been lost. 

What protects the habitat of birds and wildlife also protects people, their jobs and their property.

In Currituck Sound on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, terracing the marshes could help break wave energy and restore marshes. Salt marsh vegetation is responsible for 60 percent reduction in the force of wave action during storm events.

Saving the marshes will not only help protect the habitat of fish and birds, but will protect the lives and economy of the Currituck Sound’s residents and the surrounding Outer Banks’ billion dollar tourism business. 

In Louisiana, plans are underway to allow mud and other nutrients from the Mississippi River to flow back into the marshes to help restore wetlands to their natural state before levees straightjacketed the river and disrupted natural replenishment of the marshes.

Second, we can stop using taxpayer money to rebuild businesses and houses in areas virtually guaranteed to be destroyed during storms. Congress is now considering legislation that offers a practical, economic solution to this recurring problem.

It would expand areas conserved under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, which was first enacted during the Reagan administration and takes a common-sense approach to protecting taxpayers, public safety and the environment. 

The act simply says that if you want to develop on hazard-prone, ecologically sensitive coastal areas, you will do so without the use of federal taxpayer dollars.

The act does not prohibit development. It just removes the American taxpayer from the job of paying for it.  As a result, it’s estimated that this law has saved the taxpayer billions in federal expenditures. But it could save even more.

The House bill would expand this act to include 17,000 additional coastal acres in storm-prone states, including North and South Carolina, Delaware and Florida. That land would be off limits for financial assistance from the government, giving developers incentive to find safer places to build. 

Federal, state and local governments must act to protect our communities and our economic life support systems. Hurricanes devastate red, blue and purple states with the same impunity and conservation has been a bi-partisan issue for decades.

And as we look at ways to adapt and mitigate the losses from climate change, foundations should invest in our coastlines — climate adaptation is as important as mitigation.  

As we’ve seen in recent days and could see again in coming days, it’s a matter of life and death.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. Follow him on Twitter at @david_yarnold.