Several years ago I attended an affordable housing conference in Cromwell, Connecticut – a town with scant affordable housing (only 7.2%) – at a sprawl-burg hotel intended only for car-driving access. One session that I attended was supposed to be about affordable housing, climate change, and resiliency. This could have been a timely and informative session about tackling affordable housing issues through the lens of the immediate and growing climate emergency. Extreme weather events, flooding, and urban heat island effects are even more difficult to respond to when a family is on a tight budget.
The voluntary movement and transition of people and ecosystems away from vulnerable coastal areas. Source – Georgetown Climate Center, Managed Retreat Toolkit]
The primary presentation was about spending hundreds of millions in federal funds to put Gold Coast homes on stilts after Hurricane Sandy. My questions about flooding impacts and resiliency planning in urban and low-income communities were met by puzzled frowns. When I asked about managed retreat plans for coastal neighborhoods, the concept seemed foreign. The housing developers and associated state departments were not ready for rising sea levels and more severe storms. They were not investing in meaningful readiness, resiliency, and risk reduction projects. The intersection of affordable housing, resiliency, and climate change was not even being discussed.
Circling back to the topic of low-lying, coastal, and flood-prone communities, airports, and industrial area, it really came home to me how close we are to sea level changes that will threaten huge swathes of the American coastline as I biked through Norfolk, Virginia. I physically saw the high tide (not a storm surge or rainwater flood) covering local streets in coastal neighborhoods barely above seal level. The radio stations warned daily of coastal flooding from tides, just tides. The City of Virginia Beach has worked with Waze, the navigation app, to network flood level sensors on utility poles that give live flooding depth reports, automatically updating driving directions and detours.
There are some smart public infrastructure and housing projects in Connecticut taking climate change and flooding into account. For example, the Meriden Green flood control project created a lowered park area that is intended to be flooded during big storms, flood-vulnerable affordable housing was demolished, and several new mixed-income apartment buildings were built around the Green and new Hartford Line Commuter Rail Station. The new housing was raised up and out of the 100-year flood level. The bridge across the park was a bit of overkill, but the reinforcing fibers in the turf were a smart addition, allowing the town to hold festivals and park food trucks in the park without ruining the lawn. Another intelligent design feature was that the transit station parking is in a new garage that also functions as parking for the new station adjacent apartments.
At the same time, low-lying areas like Tweed Airport are courting major private investment and expansion. That airport and surrounding neighborhoods are all at risk of flooding, especially when the projected sea-level rise is combined with a big storm. On the positive side, a wide open airfield is less of a flood loss than a dense neighborhood. Perhaps Tweed Airport’s climate change destiny is as a flood control project?
What blew my mind while East Coast cross-country bicycle touring is how much housing is still getting built in low-lying areas that are going to get harder and harder to protect from sea level rise and large storms. The new construction in coastal areas typically includes flooding resiliency features, such as a raised first story. So yes, the new houses may survive above a storm surge. What about the municipal infrastructure, sewer system, and other public utilities? Will the home on stilts be worth living in when the roads wash out every few years and are impassable during high tides? Will the coastal towns be able to keep going to the state and federal government for rebuild and infrastructure money after repeat storms? Are government-backed flood insurance policies going to be tenable as the public costs of insuring coastal homes rises? There is likely a stopping point in public opinion for bailing out properties lost to flooding and more frequent storms.
Replenishing beaches and rebuilding dunes with dredged sand is a public expense that will keep rising. Building flood walls and pump stations is a huge investment of public dollars, subsidized by those not living near sea level. It will be interesting to see how much political and corporate power will be directed to protect and rebuild coastal investments, cities, and vacation communities.
When I stopped in Greenville, North Carolina, the Sustainability Director at East Carolina University, took me on a tour of the riverside multiuse trail into downtown Greenville. We stopped at a community garden and a public orchard. Both lots were previously houses that had been condemned after serious flooding during Hurricane Floyd (1999). Rather than rebuilding on those increasingly flood prone lots, they were condemned and converted to public greenspace. Now those low-lying lots provide benefit to the community while buffering the neighborhood against future flood losses and expense. Beyond those two lots, it was obvious that many lots flanking the riverfront multi-use trail used to be homes but were now an extension of the flood plain park.
I think it is going to be more and more common that local communities, state governments, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), will be pushing vulnerable properties to take buy outs rather than rebuild in the same place. I do not see this happening as a managed retreat effort ahead of a huge storm, but more likely after the disasters occur. There will not be enough managed retreat and resiliency investment ahead of natural disasters. The sea level rise and increasing storm severities are already baked in, even if we meet the global best case scenarios for reducting global warming emissions. We need to be prepared, emotionally and fiscally, for decades of disastrous retreat.
If legislators, housing experts, planners, and local leaders would rather get ahead of this storm, I recommend the Georgetown Climate Center’s Managed Retreat Toolkit.
“Current and future [greenhouse gas] emissions matter. About 2 feet (0.6 meters) of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline is increasingly likely between 2020 and 2100 because of emissions to date. Failing to curb future emissions could cause an additional 1.5 – 5 feet (0.5 – 1.5 meters) of rise for a total of 3.5 – 7 feet (1.1 – 2.1 meters) by the end of this century. Source – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]