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Rebuilding Beaches: Worth the Cost?

Credit Western Carolina University
Coastal Geologist Rob Young, who heads the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University talks with students.

Rob Young: We definitely incentivize rebuilding at the moment. Many of those beaches that have eroded were beaches that we built, that we put there, that we engineered and we put there for coastal protection.  You may be surprised to know that more than half the shoreline length in Florida is completely artificial.  These are beaches that have essentially been pumped up to hold the shoreline in place in front of investment property on the oceanfront.  We may have a storm that passes without a significant amount of (coastal) property damage, but taxpayers may still be on the hook for millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe even a billion dollars to try and put the beaches back, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers beaches that have been engineered and constructed as part of an ongoing coastal protection effort to be a part of an infrastructure of that community.  So you may have a town where there was zero dollars of damage from storm flooding but that town may go to FEMA to request tens of millions of dollars to put their beach back because the beach is what is protecting their homes.

HC: Instead of rebuilding, what would you like to see happen?

Rob Young:  I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be doing be nourishment projects like this.  I do question whether it is in the federal interest to be paying for those beach nourishment projects with federal dollars.  The science shows it’s a losing battle in the long run, and in some places more quickly than others.

Look, in some places it will make sense to spend federal dollars to stabilize them like Manhattan or Wallops Island, Virginia where we shoot rockets off, or Cape Canaveral.  But the fact of the matter is, the science tells us we cannot hold every shoreline along the Gulf Coast or on the East Coast in place forever.  It would be incredibly expensive, but even if we wanted to spend all of that money, we’re not going to have the sand to do it. In some places like Southern Florida, and even parts of North Carolina, it’s getting impossible to find beach quality sand to do this.

HC:  Still, for local communities, that’s got to be a hard pill to swallow.

Rob Young.  We're not talking about abandoning entire communities.  Let’s take the North Carolina Outer Banks for example. Much of town of Nags Head is in great shape, but there are hot spots, especially in South Nags Head, that have been a headache for that community for a couple of decades.  It just doesn’t make sense to maintain those particular areas, and the town is considering walking away from a section of South Nags Head. That is exactly the kind of adaptation I’m talking about, changing the vulnerability footprint of your community, and not abandoning your community. But every oceanfront community has those places that they know about, that are a pain in the butt for emergency managers and town officials all of the time and those are the places that we need to find a way to step back from.

HC: So as beach communities are assessing the shoreline fallout Matthew, it sounds like it could be a good time to do some thinking.

Rob Young:  Could be. I’m skeptical that it will be. At the very least we need to have a national conversation about where we should be spending those dollars and how much. Do we owe it to New Jersey (Hurricane Sandy) to cover 100 percent of the cost of putting their beaches back in front of their beach homes?  Does it mean we have to do that for all of Florida after Hurricane Matthew? That’s the conversation we need to have now.  It is really not my place to make that choice. It is my place, I think, to say that science tells us that is unsustainable. We need to figure out where we're going to prioritize that spending if we're going to continue the spending.

HC: So these conversations may, or may not happen.  What will you be watching,  post Hurricane Matthew?

Rob Young:  The question we will be interested in is the role the federal government will play in providing future storm protection to these coastal communities, repairing beaches and dunes, building new beaches dunes and how all of that plays out.

HC: Final thoughts?

Rob Young: I think it is important to remember, everything we have been talking about has nothing to do with climate change. These are natural hazards that we know exist right now. We also need to be thinking about long term climate change at the coast and rising sea level. But from my perspective, the first step in making good decisions about rising sea level and climate change is to do a very good job of managing for the hazards we know exist right now.  And in my opinion, we’re not doing that. So there's not a whole lot of point in talking about one meter sea level rise and how that is going to impact the coast, if we can't deal with Hurricane Matthew, Superstorm Sandy, Katrina, or Hugo, if we keep making same mistakes and keep putting homes back in the same places, and spending a lot of money to do so, and if we continue to live in the fantasy land and hold every beach in place forever.  Until we're able to deal with natural hazards we know exist right now, there's not a whole lot of point planning for seal level rise.

Read Rob Young's Editorial in the New York Times here.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.