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Flood, Rebuild, Repeat: Are We Ready for a Superstorm Sandy Every Other Year?

Why we pretend the next storm won't happen—and flush billions in disaster relief down the drain.

Two months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City, Battery Park is again humming with tourists and hustlers, guys selling foam Statue of Liberty crowns, and commuters shuffling off the Staten Island Ferry. On a winter day when the bright sun takes the edge off a frigid harbor breeze, it's hard to imagine all this under water. But if you look closely, there are hints that not everything is back to normal.

Take the boarded-up entrance to the new South Ferry subway station at the end of the No. 1 line. The metal structure covering the stairwell is dotted with rust and streaked with salt, tracing the high-water mark at 13.88 feet above the low-tide line—a level that surpassed all historical floods by nearly four feet. The saltwater submerged the station, turning it into a "large fish tank," as former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota put it, corroding the signals and ruining the interior. While the city reopened the old station in early April, the newer one is expected to remain closed to the public for as long as three years.

Before the storm, South Ferry was easily one of the more extravagant stations in the city, refurbished to the tune of $545 million in 2009 and praised by former MTA CEO Elliot Sander as "artistically beautiful and highly functional." Just three years later, the city is poised to spend more than that amount fixing it. Some have argued that South Ferry shouldn't be reopened at all.

The destruction in Battery Park could be seen as simple misfortune: After all, city planners couldn't have known that within a few years the beautiful new station would be submerged in the most destructive storm to ever hit New York City.

Except for one thing: They sort of did know. Back in February 2009, a month before the station was unveiled, a major report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change—which Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened to inform the city's climate adaptation planning—warned that global warming and sea level rise were increasing the likelihood that New York City would be paralyzed by major flooding. "Of course it flooded," said George Deodatis, a civil engineer at Columbia University. "They spent a lot of money, but they didn't put in any floodgates or any protection."

And it wasn't just one warning. Eight years before the Panel on Climate Change's report, an assessment of global warming's impacts in New York City had also cautioned of potential flooding. "Basically pretty much everything that we projected happened," says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, co-chair of the Panel on Climate Change, and the co­author of that 2001 report.

Scientists often refer to the "100-year flood," the highest water level expected over the course of a century. But with sea levels rising along the East Coast—a natural phenomenon accelerated by climate change—scientists project that in our lifetimes what was once considered a 100-year flood will happen every 3 to 20 years. And truly catastrophic storms will do damage unimaginable today. "With the exact same Sandy 100 years from now," Deodatis says, "if you have, say, five feet of sea level rise, it's going to be much more devastating."

Roughly 123 million of us—39 percent of the US population—dwell in coastal counties. And that spells trouble: 50 percent of the nation's shorelines, 11,200 miles in all, are highly vulnerable to sea level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the problem isn't so much that the surf laps a few inches higher: It's what happens to all that extra water during a storm.

We're already getting a taste of what this will mean. Hurricane Sandy is expected to cost the federal government $60 billion. Over the past three years, 10 other storms have each caused more than $1 billion in damage. In 2011, the federal government declared a record 94 weather-related major disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires*. The United States averaged 56 such disasters per year from 2000 to 2010, and a mere 18 a year in the 1960s.

The consequences for the federal budget are staggering. In just the past two years, natural disasters have cost the Treasury $188 billion—nearly $2 billion a week. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which covers more than $1 trillion in assets, is one of the nation's largest fiscal liabilities. The program went $16 billion in the hole on Hurricane Katrina, and after Sandy it will be at least $25 billion in debt—a deficit unlikely ever to be fixed.

Meanwhile, Washington is stuck in an endless cycle of disaster response. The US government spends billions of dollars on disasters after they happen, but it pinches pennies when it comes to preparing for them. And both federal and state policies create incentives for people to build and rebuild in increasingly risky coastal areas. "The large fiscal machinery at the federal level is cranking ahead as if there's no sea level rise, and as if Sandy never happened," says David Conrad, a water consultant who has been working on flood policy for decades. "This issue is moving so much faster than the governmental apparatus right now."

Put another way: We're already deep under water.
 

How likely is another superstorm?

Odds that New York City will see flooding like Sandy's again next year are 1 in 10,000. But if scientists' worst-case sea level predictions hold, by 2100 those odds will be 1 in 2. For coastal Virginia, odds of flooding like Hurricane Isabel's are 1 in 100 right now. By 2060, another Isabel could happen every single year.

 

Some 350 miles south of the South Ferry subway station, on Virginia's Middle Peninsula, is Gloucester County. The red-brick homes and matching sidewalks give the county seat, Gloucester Courthouse, a colonial feel. The county was the site of Werowocomoco, the capital of the Powhatan Confederacy, and just across the York River to the southwest are Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, some of the earliest English settlements in North America. Europeans first settled the county in 1651, and some local families date back just about that far. In the more remote necks on the bay, watermen still speak Guinean, a dialect full of "ye" and other archaic words along with the lilt of dropped r's and d's of the greater Tidewater area.

Gloucester County's population of 36,886 is spread over 217 square miles, with a median household income of $62,000. Historically, most in the region relied on fishing and agriculture, but now many commute over the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge to Williamsburg and Norfolk. A few McMansions have popped up, but they look out of place; I saw one fancy house sitting next to a trailer with a goat roped to the front porch.

Gloucester is one of the biggest losers in the geographic lottery when it comes to sea level rise—low, surrounded by water, and flat as a billiard table. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel walloped the county, causing $1.9 billion in damage throughout the state of Virginia. And that was just the beginning.

On a warmer-than-it-should-be spring morning, I meet Chris West, a burly tugboat engineer whose gray rancher sits about 120 yards from the Severn River and about three feet above sea level. He's in his driveway, waiting for a team of contractors to jack his home six feet up in the air. West's parents built the house 60 years ago, and he's lived there his whole life.

West, 43, watches as the contractors clear brush and unhook his utilities; soon they will break the foundation, shove giant wooden beams under the house, and crank it up on hydraulic jacks. Then they will stack four wooden piers beneath the structure, like Lincoln Logs, to hold it up as they pour cement for a new foundation six feet higher. West and his dogs will stay at his girlfriend's house while the house is under construction.

"I got butterflies," he says.

Raising up the house would have cost West $85,000, but it's being subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, so he only has to cover around $4,000. So far, FEMA has given Gloucester County $11.8 million to raise 60 homes, and another 59 homes and businesses are in line for a lift. The county also offers residents an outright buyout, but only 17 families and one business have gone that route.

What was once a 100-year flood will happen every 3 to 20 years. And truly catastrophic storms will do damage unimaginable today.

Neither FEMA nor county officials promote the grants as a climate change adaptation program—even if that's exactly what they are becoming. "Even the naysayers have noticed the increased number of storms," says Anne Ducey-Ortiz, Gloucester's director of planning. "Even when people don't want to deal with climate change, they are willing to talk about increased flooding."

For West, the reality hit home during Hurricane Isabel. The storm pushed water from the Chesapeake Bay into the Mobjack Bay, then up into the Severn, through his backyard, over the deck, and into the house. He had 18 inches of seawater inside and nearly $30,000 in damage. He spent three and a half months living with his in-laws as he tore out drywall and carpets and replaced all his furniture.

Isabel was the worst storm in this region as far back as most people here can remember, and folks assumed the next one wouldn't come for a long while. "You think, 'Thirty more years I won't be living here anyhow, I'll be in a nursing home,'" West says. But then just three years later, a tropical storm named Ernesto blew through, bringing the water an inch and a half short of his deck. Then there was Nor'Ida in November 2009, and Hurricane Irene in August 2011, again bringing the water under the deck and inches below the threshold of his back door. Even the average tides behind the house, West reckons, seem almost a foot and a half higher than they used to be.

Tide measurements have found that the sea level along this part of Virginia's southern coast has risen 14.5 inches in the past 80 years, and scientists expect the rate of increase to double for the rest of this century, adding another 27.2 inches. Meanwhile, the land is getting lower: The earth here has been settling due to the double whammy of a glacial retreat in the Pleistocene era 20,000 years ago and a giant meteor that hit some 35 million years before that. Removing massive amounts of groundwater for paper mills and other industrial uses has aggravated the sinking, much like the aquifer depletion that's been causing killer sinkholes in Florida. The upshot, says Pam Mason, a senior coastal management scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester: "You take our little two-foot tide and you put one more foot on it, and it starts to make a difference. We've gotten complacent. We've gotten really close to the edge."

Ducey-Ortiz says that in a number of areas the county would prefer just to buy out homeowners because, even if you lift up the houses, flooding will submerge the roads, trapping residents and cutting off emergency services. Still, authorities won't force anyone to move. "You're allowing people to stay in a hazard area," she acknowledges. But "in Gloucester, that's our heritage, that whole Guinea area. To abandon those people, those families that live out there, people who just love living on the water—we want to help them."

West says he might have considered taking a buyout, but it would have had to be at least $200,000—what he owes on his mortgage right now. Like most in Gloucester, he elected to stay. "It's hard to take people out of their home, their true home," he says. Most of his neighbors, "the only time they've left has been in a pine box."

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Perhaps the only topic touchier than whether people should abandon their homes is why the problem even exists. West has heard of global warming, but he's not entirely sure it's responsible for the rising water. "Nobody knows, I don't think. Everybody speculates," he says. Local authorities rarely, if ever, speak the words "climate change."

"I wouldn't want to turn some positive influences off by coming up with a political term," said Paul Koll, Gloucester County's building official. "I am really conscious of not labeling it anything so I don't shoot myself in the foot." Two years ago, when leaders in neighboring Mathews County broached the subject of sea level rise, tea partiers packed meetings warning of an environmentalist plot to "put nature above man." They linked a proposal to build dikes to a United Nations sustainability plan known as Agenda 21, which has inspired a number of conspiracy theories among far-right activists.

Never mind that the Middle Peninsula, made up of Gloucester and five other counties, expects up to $249 million in new climate-related costs by 2050, a figure that doesn't even include potential damage from storms like Isabel or Ida. The American Security Project, a Washington think tank, projects that climate impacts could cost the state a whopping $45.4 billion by 2050, with extreme storms alone putting $129.7 billion worth of property at risk.

Yet Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell phased out a Governor's Commission on Climate Change after taking office in 2010. His attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli (who won the state's Republican gubernatorial nomination in May), has spent a good deal of his time in office seeking to prosecute former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann for his work on historic temperature records. And when state lawmakers requested a study on sea level rise, Republican state Del. Chris Stolle retorted that the term was "left-wing." (The Legislature settled on "recurrent coastal flooding.") And Virginia is better off than neighboring North Carolina, where lawmakers last year explicitly refused to consider scientists' current projections in coastal building decisions.

*Correction: The original version of this article classified more of these disasters as weather-related; as one reader pointed out, four of them were instead earthquake-related.

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