Presentation focuses on possible 'retreat' from coast

A.R. Siders

NEWBURYPORT — It’s no secret that rising waters brought about by climate change are changing society’s relationship with the ocean, and a specialist from the University of Delaware knows that, unfortunately, there may be a time when residents will have to move away from coastal communities.

A.R. Siders, a managed retreat specialist, will give a live video broadcast presentation Wednesday night discussing how storms, floods, erosion and sea level rise are making coastal towns more dangerous, and addressing the question of when it makes sense for people to move away from the ocean.

The event, titled “The ‘R’ Word (Retreat): When is it Time to Leave?” is hosted by the environmental group Storm Surge, and begins at 7 p.m. in the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge auditorium.

In the presentation, Siders will describe managed retreat – described as the purposeful movement of people and infrastructure away from risk – in the U.S. and what it could involve in the future.

She also will discuss managed retreat in the face of climate change, how local communities can plan for a retreat, and the importance of managing the implementation and outcome.

There will be a question-and-answer session after her presentation.

As Siders explained in a telephone interview with The Daily News, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been funding retreats since 1989, and they have been implemented in 1,100 communities across 49 states. She said retreats have been fairly common in places where river flooding occurs and usually involve a small number of homes or part of a neighborhood.

Siders said that as waters continue to rise, coastal communities will face necessary changes to their relationships with the ocean and will need to take measures such as beach nourishment, constructing coastal barriers or walls, elevating homes or retreat. 

“It’s really hard, and I think one of the hardest things about climate change is that even if we change in place, it’s still going to change the sense of community,” Siders said.

“Living on Plum Island with 10-foot walls between the ocean and the community, it would change people’s relationship with the ocean.”

Siders said the presentation will not be locally focused, but she did admit that Plum Island is one community that could one day be a candidate for a retreat. She highlighted the increasing effects of coastal erosion on oceanside neighborhoods, and said she hoped her presentation would spur discussion about the idea as an option.

“There are places that are already experiencing coastal erosion, and from everything we know about climate change, it’s going to get worse, and we’re going to have to plan for that,” said Siders. “Retreat is just one option, and I want to put it out there because every option has trade-offs.”

She said a retreat from the coast wouldn’t necessarily have to be complete or permanent.

“It doesn’t mean you can never go to the coast,” Siders said. “You could live two miles away and visit it, but then go home and be safe.”

Siders is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware and a member of the Disaster Research Center. She is a lawyer and social scientist exploring creative ways communities can adapt to climate change. Her recent projects have focused on managed retreat and the social justice implications of coastal adaptation.

In addition to her work at the center, Siders collaborates with consulting companies and nonprofit organizations to integrate climate change adaptation into disaster risk reduction and resilience building.

She holds a doctorate from Stanford and a law degree from Harvard Law School. Siders previously served as a presidential management fellow with the U.S. Navy and as an associate director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at jshea@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.

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