, Newburyport, MA


March 7, 2013

Seaside retreat: redefining our coastal communities as the ocean rises

Watching our East Coast neighbors recover from Sandy is a sobering exercise.

They’re in the unfortunate position of pioneering our national response to rising seas and more powerful coastal storms, brought to us courtesy of climate change.

But before long, every coastal community will have to ask itself how it will respond to our changing climate and changing coastlines. If talk of the recent erosion on Salisbury Beach is any indication, we, too, have begun asking.

Aside from doing nothing — which, post-Sandy, is no longer possible for many — we have a few broad adaptation options: We can try to defend against storm surge and wave action, accommodate increased erosion and flooding or retreat from at-risk areas.

Of these, my money would not have been on retreat. After all, we place a huge premium on seaside living. Just look at the Interstate 495 beach traffic on any summer Sunday or the tightly packed homes along Salisbury Beach.

But in a post-Sandy world, expect the unexpected.

Recently, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to help homeowners get out of the way, permanently, of rising seas. He plans to use $400 million of federal emergency aid dollars to buy damaged homes at pre-storm, full-market value, destroy them and let the depopulated landscape serve as a coastal buffer from future storms. A system of bonuses aims to encourage buy-outs for entire neighborhoods.

As Cuomo put it, “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns.” Or, Mother Nature aided and abetted by human-induced climate change and rising seas.

Not surprisingly, the early reaction from communities is mixed. In some places, few homeowners are interested. In others, the idea is being embraced. In one badly damaged Staten Island neighborhood, 80 percent of households have agreed to be bought out if the program goes forward. “We don’t have the fight to stay anymore,” a resident told the New York Times.

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