The Atlantic Ocean poured into streets and neighborhoods from Maine to Florida during seasonal high tides last fall, while scientists feared it would only get worse. But now, with Joe Biden becoming president, climate experts and government officials have a simple reason to hope for help in combating the problem.
They’ll finally have a president who actually believes sea levels are rising.
“We’re eagerly looking forward to change and action that will assist states in preparing themselves and their residents,” said Ann Phillips, a retired Navy rear admiral who serves as special assistant to Virginia’s governor for coastal adaptation and protection. “It all starts with acknowledging climate change is happening and the science is real.”
While it’s still unclear what form new help would take, the need is obvious, with increased flooding fulfilling predictions that scientists have been making about warmer water temperatures and melting ice sheets for decades.
High-tide flooding occurs on average twice as often in coastal communities as it did 20 years ago, federal data shows. And a report last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed 19 locations along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts broke or tied records for flood days in 2019, including Miami, Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Annapolis, Maryland. With sea levels nationally up 1.1 feet relative to 1920 levels and still rising, flood days are forecast to increase exponentially.
Coastal officials hope to see a new wave of cooperation, financial assistance, coordination and support in their battle with the sea, but the specifics of how Biden intends to carry out campaign pledges to address climate change remain elusive.
The press office with Biden’s transition team declined to answer specific questions for this story, referring reporters to his previously published climate and clean-energy plans. Those plans pledge to make climate change a national security priority, pointing out the threat of rising sea levels to coastal military bases.
The earlier plans also support the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled after the Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, to protect and restore coastal ecosystems, such as wetlands, seagrasses and oyster reefs to protect vulnerable coastlines.
Phillips and others said they’re encouraged by Biden’s appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy to White House-level positions to advise him on climate issues.
Biden’s public remarks have pointed out the economic opportunities in climate and energy projects that create jobs. He said in December, “We can put millions of Americans to work modernizing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure to withstand the impacts of extreme weather.”
While environmental issues often get wrapped up in the polarized politics of Washington, much of what Biden might want to do over the next four years is based more on economic arguments than a liberal agenda, a consensus of scientists agree.
A good first step? Phillips sees an urgent need for Biden and his administration to help manage risk by funding federal agencies to “collect and analyze the most current data to make projections and funding decisions,” especially when it comes to things like road improvements and utility systems.
More frequent flooding in recent years takes away money set aside for maintaining roads and water and sewer systems and makes it more difficult to prepare for the future, Phillips said. In her state of Virginia, for example, nine major flood events in 2018 and 2019 caused $1.6 billion in damages.
“We’ve seen more water, high tide cycles that are higher and they last longer,” she said.
Additionally, a recent study by the Johns Hopkins University 21st Century Cities Initiative and the American Flood Coalition estimated that investing $1 billion in projects to prevent or manage flooding would create 40,000 new jobs.
The study also looked at counties that had received large payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program. If just 10% of the $4 billion spent on flood insurance payments had been put into building stormwater retention areas or other projects that would make buildings, roads and utilities resistant to or safe from future flooding, it would have created 160,000 construction and retail jobs and prevented tens of millions of dollars in losses from subsequent flooding.
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Such paybacks for protecting property can far surpass the initial costs, said Kelly Kryc, director of ocean policy at New England Aquarium’s Cabot Anderson Center for Ocean Life. For example, she cited two court-mandated projects to clean up Boston Harbor that cost $4.7 billion, while a 2018 study published in the online journal ScienceDaily estimated the value of the restored ecosystem at $30 billion to $100 billion.
Thinking of coastal resilience projects as an investment against future disaster relief costs may be essential to meeting needs, scientists said. Already the demand far outstrips funding.
In 2017, the National Coastal Resilience fund awarded $13.8 million to 19 projects, not quite 10% of the money requested among 167 proposals, Kryc said. Funding doubled in 2018 and 2019 to almost $30 million, but the demand remained 10 times the amount of available funding.
“These were projects that were shovel-ready and demonstrably effective,” Kryc said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone has a $98 billion backlog in resiliency projects and spends about $2 billion a year, Phillips added: “At that rate we’re never going to get there from here.”
Another step scientists hope the Biden administration will move forward on is bringing together federal agencies to build in resiliency and protect at-risk communities in development plans. Such policies were underway during the Obama administration but were never adopted, Phillips said. Without them, projects remain skewed toward more valuable properties that produce greater tax revenue.
Obama-era recommendations for elevating facilities, roads and other projects based on predicted water levels also were never enacted. Beefing up those standards could help drive state departments of transportation to take definitive measures to address sea level rise, said Jason Evans, director of the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
Having such rules in place can help ensure that new development is built with higher sea levels in mind, said Daniel Moon, president and executive director of the Environmental Business Council of New England.
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Venice was flooded on December 8 after a new flood defense system was not deployed. Officials are reviewing the procedures for necessary changes.
For example, billions have been spent on new office and apartment buildings in Boston’s Seaport District, one of the city’s fastest growing and trendiest sections. Many conform to newer coastal flood resilience guidelines — based on a projected sea level rise of 40 inches over the next 50 years — with heating and other critical systems on upper-level floors.
However, buildings that allow water to pass through the first floor without causing significant damage don’t help residents navigate flooded streets, Moon added. “The Seaport community was a huge missed opportunity.”
Tougher federal standards regarding flooding could compel changes to private development, scientists said.
In early January, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Association of State Floodplain Managers filed a petition to try to prod the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set stronger standards for building in flood plains and protecting against future flood risk.
If the federal government, through the National Flood Insurance Program, limited federal payouts and started telling people they’re on their own if they build in a hazardous location, said Stetson’s Evans, “that would probably drive the conversation on retreat and on not advancing as much into vulnerable areas.”
Evans works with local governments along the coasts of Georgia and Florida in safeguarding stormwater systems against intruding ocean water and placing new public buildings in safe locations. He said federal officials need to move quickly toward taking sea level rise into account when planning federal projects in coastal regions.
If federal funding for high-dollar construction projects were contingent on planning for sea level rise, “that would make a big difference,” Evans said.
“It’s really overdue,” he added. “We should have been doing it 25 years ago.”