Multinational Monitor

SEP 2003
VOL 24 No. 9


Fishing Off the Deep End - And Back
by Carl Safina

Dead Seas: Nutrient Pollution in Coastal Waters
by Doug Daigle

Coasts at Risk: Coastal Sprawl and the Shore
by David Helvarg

Deep Trouble: Corporate and Military Designs on the Deep Seas
by Deborah Cramer

The Seaweed Rebellion: Marine Grassroots Movements to Protect Coastal and Ocean Ecosystems
by David Helvarg


Working for a New Ocean Ethos: Ocean Activism on the Shorelines
an interview with Christopher Evans


Behind the Lines

A Sea Change to Reverse the Oceans Crisis

The Front
Executive Excess

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Coasts at Risk: Coastal Sprawl and the Shore

by David Helvarg

Barrier islands are like geology on amphetamines. Unarmored, they tend to move, by the decade, year, season, sometimes in a single stormy day. It's a natural process that can be strikingly beautiful, provided you haven't just closed on a multimillion-dollar beachfront dream home.

Unfortunately, more and more wealthy people in the United States are doing just that -- moving to or buying second homes in places like East Hampton, Hilton Head, Sea Island, Ocean Reef or Captiva. Other folks are buying high rise condos in Ocean City, Myrtle Beach, Gulf Port, Coronado and Honolulu, or else flocking like lemmings to new housing developments built on filled-in salt marshes and flood plains all along the coast.

And while lemmings don't actually jump off cliffs and drown themselves in the sea, if they did there would undoubtedly be a number of government programs offering them flight insurance and full-coverage for any water damage.

More than 145 million people, about 54 percent of the U.S. population, live within 50 miles of a marine coastline, with about a million new arrivals showing up every year. Every day, some 2,000 new homes are built along the U.S. coasts. Fourteen of the 20 largest cities in the United States and 17 of its 20 fastest-growing counties are coastal. Every week more than 3,500 new people arrive in Southern California and 4,000 along Florida's strands.

Their huge footprint is visible from an airplane above south Florida. And while the turquoise sea and darker hurricane season sky are still awesome to behold, it's also impossible to ignore the urban seawall of high-rise glass and steel condos and hotels marching down the beach, the sprawl of dug-out brown water canal suburbs, and the green algae-choked marina outlets between West Palm and Miami. On the other side of the state, the once tranquil Gulf Coast is now growing faster than this "Gold Coast," while St. Joe, a timber company turned developer, wants to put hundreds of thousands of new homes, marinas and a major airport on an undeveloped stretch of the panhandle. The Everglades have been drained and their restoration delayed (by big sugar lobbyists), while urban and agricultural runoff is killing off the coral reefs of the Keys.

Beachfront development -- whether in Florida, New Jersey or Hawaii -- also hardens the shore, with seawalls and jetties accelerating erosion while preventing new sand from being deposited. When the beaches go away, developers pressure Congress to bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to do "beach replenishment." In Fort Lauderdale, an activist group called "Cry of the Waters" is protesting a plan to pump offshore sand onto their beach. They fear the dredging will bury little known but healthy coral reefs just offshore. The one consistent predictor for reef decline is proximity to human development.

The U.S. coasts (excluding Alaska) are now three times as densely populated as the rest of the country, while government policies ignore increased storm impacts linked to climate and other factors, and continue to encourage people to move in harm's way.

The Bush administration recently gathered over 1,000 scientists and energy industry lobbyists to jump-start the White House's five-year plan to study global warming and determine its causes. This is like having the Commission on 9/11 study whether a major terrorist attack on the United States could ever happen.

Twenty years of the best-available science has already shown that burning carbon-rich fossil fuels is heating the planet and beginning to cause major disasters from droughts to flooding to sea-level rise, coral bleaching and intensified coastal hurricanes. One sensible response might be to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Why? Along with providing house trailers and clean-up aid in the wake of disasters, FEMA also provides over $600 billion in flood insurance coverage that private insurance companies refuse to touch. They won't provide it for the same reason they won't insure homes built on Navy bombing ranges. They don't believe flood plains, sand beaches and barrier islands are sensible places to build. Still, more than half of FEMA's flood insurance coverage is now in the hurricane prone state of Florida.

"These last years have been the busiest on record for tropical hurricanes in the Atlantic," says Dr. Chris Landsea with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological lab in Miami. Dr. Landsea and other meteorologists believe the East Coast has now entered a cycle of intensified storms.

In addition to increased storm surge and wind-sheer linked to climate change, the East Coast historically experiences 25-to-40 year storm cycles, associated with a periodic one degree warming in the north Atlantic. "We saw this in the 1940s to 1960s, when we averaged 3 major storms per year. Between the 1970s and early 1990s, the average dropped to 1.5 storms," Landsea explains. "We've got good sea surface temperature and storm records going back to the 1870s, and based on this 120-year record it looks like things will be getting very active again over the next 25 years." How are our public officials responding to this threat? Mostly, they're not. Despite grim forecasts for increased storms and hurricanes, the U.S. Coast Guard -- responsible for search and rescue at sea during storm disasters -- is unprepared for the additional workload. A recent report from the Government Accounting Office, the Congressional research agency, concluded that, with its new billet in the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard's focus on counter-terrorism and port security has sapped its ability to maintain its multi-mission maritime role.

Elsewhere, special interests continue to set the agenda for coastal storm response. As Hurricane Floyd was bearing down on Florida four years ago (before veering off to devastate North Carolina), the Florida Homebuilders Association was lobbying the statehouse in Tallahassee to block building codes that would require hurricane shutters and reinforced roofs on all new homes.

In North Carolina, the unregulated placement of massive corporate hog farms in historic flood plains turned what would have been major flooding from Floyd into a once-in-500-year disaster as dozens of swine-waste lagoons burst or overflowed, sending animal waste and dead livestock into the 1,700-square-mile Pamlico Sound, the country's second largest estuary after Chesapeake Bay.

Unfortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has proved incapable of mustering the political will to alter its own financial incentive program that places people in harm's way. When Clinton FEMA Director James Lee Witt made some timid proposals for reforming the flood insurance program, pressure from the National Home Builders Association, wealthy coastal homeowners and the politicians they control led to their rapid withdrawal. Joe Albaugh, President Bush's former point man at FEMA (now moved on to the Bush Re-Election campaign) rolled back even the one modest effort Witt initiated to relocate willing insured coastal property owners after they've been hit by hurricanes (and paid off by the taxpayer). FEMA has also moved on, like the Coast Guard, to become part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Until FEMA's flood insurance program became available in 1968, banks refused to grant mortgages for beachfront home construction. It was only after the feds assumed the risk that private insurers were unwilling to take on that the coastal real-estate market boomed.

FEMA's original thinking was that their insurance would reduce individual risk while shifting the burden of hurricane disaster relief onto policy holders.

They would guarantee a large insurance pool by making the rates so inexpensive that lots of people would buy the policies. This idea worked for a while, about as long as the historic lull in Atlantic hurricane activity of the 1970s and 1980s. As soon as Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, Opal, George, Fran, Floyd and their ilk started marching ashore, the program turned into a money loser and the largest financial exposure the federal government now faces.

There are, however, more sensible models for living safely by the shore in the heavy weather to come. When Hurricane Opal hit the Florida panhandle in 1995, towns like Destin and Dune-Allen were devastated, but the town of Seaside -- a recently constructed village of 280 old-Florida-style frame homes set back behind the dunes -- came out unscathed.

Aside from siting its homes behind the beach's protective sand dunes, Seaside also used tough building standards designed to resist 150-mile-per-hour winds, sank its foundation pilings deep into the ground, and planted lots of native trees and grasses to secure the dunes and buffer the houses. Also rejected were cheap building materials like vinyl and strandboard siding. "If it didn't exist before 1940, we didn't feel it was proven," says Robert Davis, the founding developer of Seaside.

"It used to be everyone built well back from the beach," he adds. "That was before federal flood insurance made stupidity feasible. Good developments are done with long-term greed as their operating principle, but there's still more short-term greed at work."

Public policy makers continue to respond to the demands of that short-term greed.

In 1982, Congress began to see the folly of promoting dangerous coastal development and passed the Coastal Barriers Resources Act (CBRA, pronounced "cobra"). The act excludes some 1.3 million acres of flood-prone undeveloped barrier islands and wet sand spits from federal subsidies, including flood insurance, bridge and highway construction, and beach "replenishment." It doesn't prevent property owners from developing CBRA land, but few have chosen to do so without these federal props.

Beginning with Newt Gingrich's 104th Congress, however, the House and Senate began passing dozens of "technical corrections" to CBRA in order to remove constituents' (read contributors') properties from CBRA's subsidy-exclusion zones. Typically in the 106th Congress, these pro-developer "corrections" would be rushed through on the last day or two before the Thanksgiving or Christmas break. But with today's 108th Congress, politicians are not only ignoring the concepts of waste, fraud and abuse, but of shame, bundling their "technical corrections" together and openly promoting them as models of sensible development.

Pumpkin Key, a low-lying 25-acre mangrove island just off the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, Florida has been the unlucky beneficiary of one such designation. In 1998, it won a "technical correction" from CBRA so that its multimillionaire owner could put a dozen new home sites on it. Interestingly, the day his private developer was testifying in front of Democratic Senator Bob Graham and others for restoration of their federal subsidies, the Keys were being evacuated as Hurricane George approached (it would leave $250 million damage to the Keys in its wake). Ocean Reef residents report how in the wake of an earlier hurricane several well-heeled residents gave themselves new (unneeded) roofs courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Aside from putting people in harm's way, federal flood insurance also acts as an effective means of redistributing wealth from poorer inland taxpayers to richer people living on the coast.

"I love living here and I'll take the risk, but where I live in Pinecrest we're 15 feet above sea level. That's nosebleed country for Florida," says Chris Landsea, the climatologist and native Floridian. "Plus I have hurricane shutters. I'm prepared. But I don't think people in Iowa should have to pay for our property here."

There are alternative models of coastal development, from Seaside, Florida to the state of Massachusetts, where seawalls and jetties that promote erosion have been banned, to Hilo, Hawaii that moved its downtown 300 yards back from the shoreline after two devastating Tsunamis.

But adjusting to living with the sea rather than in opposition to it will take a change of attitude, priorities and environmental understanding that hopefully will not have to come at some horrific, but fully predictable, cost in human lives and property.

David Helvarg is the author of Blue Frontier — Saving America’s Living Seas and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign in Washington, D.C.


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