When the waves inevitably wash away a sandcastle, all it takes is a couple of buckets of sand and an easy afternoon’s work to rebuild it.
When gale force winds, storm surges, and flooding inevitably hit the Gulf Coast — toppling beach houses, cracking asphalt, and eroding the shoreline — it takes years of work and millions, sometimes billions, of dollars to rebuild.
Still, communities are tenaciously rebuilding condos, beach homes, retail stores, resorts and even shorelines, knowing that the next big storm could all collapse again.
It’s a vicious circle that Rob Young has worked years to break.
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“The biggest problem I see is that we’re still putting too much material at risk,” said Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University. “If I could ask a community to do one thing, it would be to put nothing else in a place where it would be immediately exposed to the next storm or flood. And that might seem really easy, but it’s incredibly difficult for communities.”
Young is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which studies the impacts of storms, sea level rise and climate change on coastal cities and advocates responsible policies to promote the long-term sustainability of the country’s coastal ecosystems.
On May 9th at CivicCon in Pensacola, Young will discuss what coastal cities need to do to prepare for the future while balancing economic and environmental interests.
“The mission of the center, which I direct, is … to conduct basic scientific research on coastal processes: impacts of coastal storms, rising sea levels, general coastal management issues, coastal restoration efforts,” Young said in a late April interview with News Journal.
“So we do science, but what makes us kind of unusual is that in our mission statement, a key mission of the center is to bring that science to decision-makers at all levels. So this is everything from an individual property owner to property owner associations, municipalities, counties, state governments, federal governments… We’re really trying, through many ways that are a bit untraditional for academics, to ensure that people have the information they need to make good science-based decisions .”
As part of his work, Young led a project to map and assess the vulnerability of every National Park Service coastal area in the United States — from the Statue of Liberty in New York to remote roads in Alaska to our own Gulf Islands National Seashore — to help park managers make decisions to help what should be protected, what should be abandoned and what should be moved further inland.
Research examines an asset’s exposure to factors such as sea level rise, flooding, flooding and coastal erosion to determine its ‘exposure’ and ‘vulnerability’. Exposure is essentially if – or when – water reaches the area being assessed, and vulnerability is what happens when the water gets there.
Young said that from a scientific point of view, this part of the work is fairly easy.
“The tricky part after that is when you start looking at issues of the ability to do something about that vulnerability and how the federal and state funding gets into a community,” Young said.
Young said local state and federal governments are spending enormous amounts of money on “resilience” and addressing vulnerability, but the process is incredibly political, with not much in the way of an overarching plan.
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“Resilience is a buzzword right now because it can really mean anything,” Young said. “We still have towns building in the floodplain, increasing the building density in the floodplain, putting more houses, roads and infrastructure in places that could be affected by the next storm – we’re just making bad decisions, and it really isn’t that.” Don’t even get a penalty for that.”
In fact, Young said that in many cases they are encouraged to make the wrong decisions.
“The way we choose to spend resilience money in the United States, money that’s being spent by the Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is they do this economic analysis where they have to get a lot for the money” said Young. “This means that according to the economic analysis that the Corps conducts, the Corps is biased to protect expensive infrastructure and it is biased to protect single-family homes — people who are working-class, blue-collar, or minority. It’s built into the way they do economic analysis.”
He pointed to the 30A community in southern Walton County as a local example of the phenomenon, noting that on a recent visit he was stunned to see so many $10 million homes being built right on the dunes .
“I’ll tell you, if they ever go after a federally funded beach restoration project, they’ll have a much better chance of getting it even though they’re causing the problem themselves, because this project will protect multi-million dollar homes instead of homes that just… $500,000 or $600,000,” he said.
Young added, “The federal government is spending an enormous amount of money pumping sand in front of these communities to try to protect these property values. If you’re going inland from the coast, we kind of turn that on its head and give very, very much for little to reduce the damage in those communities. Again, the Corps will tell you that the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up for houses that cost as little as $200,000 or $300,000 apiece.
In the United States, and particularly in Florida, where our beaches are the lynchpin for much of the region’s tourism, industry and appeal, it’s not surprising that we have tenaciously continued to build on exposed and vulnerable beachfront properties. But the question is how long this approach will be sustainable.
“It’s going to come to a head one day because honestly right now we’re really trying to hold every shoreline in the US in place by pumping sand in — everything from Southern Maine to Padre Island, Texas — with beach restoration projects,” Young called . “We’re just not going to be able to afford that forever, and there won’t be enough sand to do that forever. At some point this bubble will burst.”
Young noted with a laugh that while his warnings sound harsh, he is a positive person and thinks there is a way forward.
“I think there are ways to address this. We need to completely reform the benefit-cost analysis that is done for most federal coastal protection projects,” he said. “As Americans, we certainly value more than just the cost of individual homes. It’s more than that, right? What we are trying to save and protect should be more than that, it should be about community structures and cultural heritage and diversity and fairness. I would hope we can all agree that’s true and you shouldn’t be able to get the most federal dollars just because you have the greatest real estate value.
In a free CivicCon presentation open to all, Young will speak about how communities can balance sustainability and resilience with economic growth and success.
The event will take place on May 9 from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at The REX Theater, 18 N. Palafox St. in Pensacola. Registration is available by searching “CivicCon” on eventbrite.com.
CivicCon is a partnership of Pensacola News Journal and Studer Community Institute to make our community a better place to live, grow, work and invest through smart planning and citizen conversations.
For more information on CivicCon, visit pnj.com/civiccon.