A growing coastal population exacerbates the problem. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost 40 percent of Americans now live in coastal counties. Here at home, according to the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office, 85 percent of Massachusetts’ 6.7 million residents live within 50 miles of the coast.
A 2005 congressionally mandated study found that for every $1 invested in “hazard-mitigation activities,” the national economy saves $4 in losses from future disasters, and saved an additional $3.65 in costs to the U.S. Treasury from avoided disaster-recovery expenditures and lost tax revenues.
Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting showed that in this region, there are 534 properties considered “Severe Repetitive Loss” casualties — meaning that the flood insurance program has paid owners multiple times to repair and rebuild on-site. Some areas are particularly vulnerable; Scituate alone accounts for 112 of these property losses.
A bill championed by Sen. Mark Pacheco of Taunton, chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, includes coastal buyback simply because it is among the most cost-effective and pragmatic mitigation measures for addressing high-hazard coastal areas. The legislation proposes to fund the purchase, from willing sellers, of properties that are repeatedly and substantially damaged by storms.
Specifically, a voluntary coastal buy-back program would:
Invest in high-risk properties in advance of flood disasters;
Clean up and restore properties to their natural conditions while conserving them for public benefits such as parklands, wildlife refuges and public beaches (only one-third of Massachusetts’ 1,500-mile shoreline is open to the public);
Provide storm buffers as repaired coastal resources absorb floodwaters and save uplands from flooding; and
Capture and store heat-trapping carbon pollution within restored coastal ecosystems, mitigating some of the worst effects of climate change.
A coastal buy-back program would convert vulnerable and dangerous flood-prone properties from liabilities to valuable community assets while sparing lives, protecting the environment and saving tax dollars.
The alternative is to continue pouring money into an undertow of debt on behalf of homeowners who just want out, and taxpayers and an environment just needing relief.
Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon and a recent gubernatorial appointee to the Massachusetts Coastal Erosion Commission.