Now the federal flood program faces no less than an existential threat. As seas rise, coastal floodplains are expected to expand, exposing more property to routine flooding, surge, and waves. By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of U.S. houses could be underwater by century’s end and a trillion dollars worth of property at risk.
How Rising Seas and Coastal Storms Drowned the U.S. Flood Insurance Program
Sea level rise and more severe storms are overwhelming U.S. coastal communities, causing billions of dollars in damage and essentially bankrupting the federal flood insurance program. Yet rebuilding continues, despite warnings that far more properties will soon be underwater.
BY GILBERT M. GAUL • MAY 23, 2017
Yale Environment 360
Long Beach Island is the largest and richest barrier island in New Jersey, an oasis of sprawling oceanfront retreats and second homes located midway down the state’s heavily developed coast, a two-hour drive from the metropolitan centers of New York City and Philadelphia. On a clear day, visitors in the southern end can see the shiny facades of the Atlantic City casinos rising like obelisks across Great Bay. In the north, historic Barnegat Lighthouse towers over an unruly inlet steadied by boulders stretching into the Atlantic Ocean. In many places, the long, slender island is barely a few feet above sea level. And like most of New Jersey’s coast, it has been eroding for decades, leaving it vulnerable to flooding and rising seas.
Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pumped more than ten million cubic yards of sand from offshore dredges to widen Long Beach Island’s beaches and dunes – part of a Sisyphean-like effort to protect the island’s $15 billion of high-calorie real estate. But there is a problem. The sand keeps washing away. A series of storms over the last two years gouged the neatly groomed beaches, costing tens of millions in additional repairs. When all is said and done, the project will cost more than half a billion dollars, most of the money paid by U.S. taxpayers.
Like other barrier islands up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Long Beach Island is drowning in slow motion. Over the last century, researchers estimate that the ocean and bays that flank the island have risen by about a foot. That doesn’t sound like much, but the added water has made a huge difference in life on the island. Barnegat Bay now routinely washes over the bulkheads and floods the streets. Occasionally, school buses have to wait for the water to recede to pick up or drop off children. Even more worrisome, the rising water makes it easier for storm surge and waves to do more damage in violent storms such as Hurricane Sandy, which wrecked Long Beach Island and the back-bay communities in Ocean County in October of 2012.