It took three and a half months to put Chris West's house up on a higher foundation. When Hurricane Sandy glanced off the Virginia coast just a few months after the contractors were done, everything at his end of the neck flooded, but the water flowed right underneath his house. "I don't have that worry anymore," West says, "of being displaced out of my home." A couple of other homeowners decided that they just wanted to leave; as of May, Gloucester County had acquired 18 parcels of land, but since then, eight more homeowners have signed up for buyouts.
As vulnerable as it is to rising seas, Gloucester is lucky. It has forward-thinking local officials who acknowledge the problem, even if they'd prefer not to talk about the root causes. Gloucester County has earned improving marks from FEMA for trying to minimize flood risks with steps like establishing tougher building codes and requiring all new development to be built at least two feet above flood height. Those initiatives lower the cost of insurance for homeowners, but they also save the federal government money—an estimated $4 in future savings on property damage alone for every dollar spent on prevention.
Skip Stiles hopes an appeal to fiscal sanity is what will finally get decision makers to care about climate. Stiles, 63, is the director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based advocacy group that formed back in 1999 to protect shoreline habitats. Not long after joining the group in 2005, Stiles realized that saving tiny parcels of marsh wasn't going to help much if the entire coast was wiped out by century's end. "We started realizing it's not just the wetlands—it's the whole freaking economy in this region that's at risk," he says.
That, and not that many people care about wetlands. "We said, 'What do people care about?' Their homes, their business, their way of life."
Stiles took me on a ride through Norfolk, highlighting spots that have seen major flooding in the past few years. He pointed to one house where a car floated into the front door during a storm, and another that the owner, tired of dealing with the water, has been trying to sell for months. We drove through the Old Dominion University campus, where a small, permanent lake has formed in the back corner of a huge parking lot. "You can't pave under water," he noted dryly, "so this obviously wasn't under water when this parking lot was paved."
Stiles left Washington for coastal Virginia after 22 years as chief of staff to the late California Democratic Rep. George Brown, who in 1978 launched the first federal climate change research program. But it was not until he saw Norfolk's frequent flooding that he realized climate change, far from a distant threat, was a disaster well under way. "I thought, 'Oh, the feds are going to fix this,'" Stiles says. "BS, ain't happening. It's local government—and man, the politics at the local level."
So Stiles started showing up at local planning commission meetings, begging officials to stop approving new shoreline developments in the face of inevitable sea level rise. Back when he began, in 2006, "they looked at us like we were crazy"—coastal land is often the most valuable in a county, and it generates the highest property taxes. But then he stopped talking about climate change and started talking about budgets. "Suddenly it was like a key in the lock," he says. "What quickly happens is the money you put into those neighborhoods exceeds the property tax you get out. These neighborhoods turn into money pits. There just isn't enough money to raise all of the structures that need to be raised."
For Stiles, it doesn't matter whether local officials will actually utter the words "climate change," so long as they start dealing with the impacts. "Our perspective is just, 'Look, get on the bus, and we'll figure out together where the destination is,'" he says.
It's all about good, old-fashioned fiscal conservatism, says Conrad, the water consultant: "If this is all done by just pots of money being thrown around, most of the residents will be inclined to just take the money, do what's immediately convenient, and ignore the elephant in the room, which is that the Atlantic Ocean wants to move inland."
Matthias Ruth, an economist at Northeastern University who focuses on climate impacts, says the key is to provide a financial return for planning ahead. "We know that what once was the 100-year floodplain now is the 10- or 5-year floodplain. So what we need to do is give the incentives to either fortify buildings, elevate them, flood-proof them, or have a controlled retreat." Instead, "we pretend it's not an issue and we put ever more infrastructure into the coasts and ever more people."
Ruth ticks off the expected costs of climate change on the coasts—seawalls, flood insurance claims, disaster response, not to mention dislocation, stress on communities, and lost social connections. And what if, after a major storm like Sandy, there were an ice storm or maybe another hurricane the following year? "It's these one-two punches, the cumulative effect that they have on our infrastructure, our social systems," he says. "What we already see is worrisome, but this is going to be an order of magnitude more worrisome."
And with every year that goes by without shifting the incentives, both the costs and the future fiscal liabilities get larger. Many observers believe that after a major disaster, particularly one of Sandy's size and scope, there's a window—maybe six months, maybe a year—for a real shift in direction. Even with Congress frozen in denial, there's a lot the Obama administration could do: The Veterans Administration could stop underwriting mortgages on homes in flood-prone areas, and the Department of Commerce could deny economic development grants to projects on the coast. The Department of Housing and Urban Development could situate new low-income housing away from flood zones, and the Department of Transportation could build roads where they won't be under water in the near future.
We're already spending billions on responding to storms and disasters made worse by climate change, notes Ruth; Sandy gave us a chance to think differently. "Why don't we take [that money] and invest in infrastructure in ways to overcome the existing inefficiencies and improve quality of life?" he asks. "And then as we do this, reduce the vulnerability. Instead of having this downward spiral, have an upward one."
In the end, says Stiles, it might be a matter of how many disasters it takes to generate momentum. "I look at these little moments, this incremental progress, but I wonder, 'Is there enough time? Can we make it?'" he says. "Are there enough of these events coming up, and are we smart enough to catch up with the change that nature is going through?"
This story was supported by a Middlebury College Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.