An Imperfect Storm Part Two

Current approaches to sea level rise adaptation and recovery promote gentrification and inequality

This article first ran in January 2023. As we enter storm season here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s timely to post it again, lightly edited, for Mostly Water’s newer subscribers. Alas no voiceover, as my voice is not behaving this week.

A beachfront community jealously guards its beach.

In part one of An Imperfect Storm we looked at how the recent flooding in Puget Sound validated predictive models of the vulnerability of shoreline parcels to flooding and sea level rise. In part two we look at how the use of these models in sea level rise and storm adaptation and recovery may be exacerbating gentrification and inequality.

Importance of the Shoreline

Shoreline access is important to others than those who own property there. People use the shoreline for recreational activities including beach walking, swimming, kayaking, fishing, foraging, and viewing nature. The shoreline is also critically important habitat for sea mammals, birds, fish, and the food webs that support them.

In Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, Wallace J Nichols makes the case for the importance of access to water bodies for mental health.

In Examining coastal sense of place through community geography in Island County, Washington, David Trimbach and coauthors found that:

respondents overall have a strong coastal sense of place, including shared place meanings. This strong sense of place is associated with shoreline visit frequency and feelings about change. The paper’s findings demonstrate how residents feel and connect to the coastline, and why such local insights matter to coastal planning and recovery.

(I am a coauthor of this paper). How do our models fare in measuring these elements?

Models Focus on Real Property

Maps from the FEMA Flood Map Service Center, which are used among other things to calculate flood insurance rates, are one of the main data sources for the other models. As the tag line suggests, Risk Factor from First Street Foundation – Find Your Property’s Climate Risks – Homepage | Risk Factor – is focused on risks to real property. And Island County’s Emergency Management Damage Assessment form is collecting data on damage to real property. These models then have a bias towards measuring risk and damage in terms of real property dollars.

Measuring risk and damage in terms of real property dollars has consequences in adaptation and recovery.

Recognizing these shortcomings, in Puget Sound Parcel-scale Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment Ian Miller and coauthors attempted to include habitat and public infrastructure. An accompanying Social Vulnerability Assessment was also completed for this work. The attempt was partially successful but hampered by of a lack of good data. It turns out that sound-wide public data is much more readily available for private real property values than for habitat, for example, for which there is barely an agreement on what constitutes value. There is likewise no reliable data on public recreational infrastructure such as beach access points, boat ramps, parks, or on utilities. The social vulnerability data is available, but only at the zip code level which doesn’t interpolate well to parcel scale.

We Care About What We Can Measure

Measuring risk and damage in terms of real property dollars has consequences in adaptation and recovery. An investigation by POLITICO’s E&E News reveals systemic favoritism toward wealthy and white people in a federal program that lifts homes above rising floodwaters. FEMA has tried to address this through changing cost-benefit calculations for hazard mitigation grants in underserved communities.

Interviewed in Protection for the Rich, Retreat for the Poor | Hakai Magazine, A. R. Siders, an expert in climate change adaptation at the University of Delaware explains that:

“You don’t build a [US] $1-million flood wall in front of a $100,000 home. And conversely, if I give you $1-million and say I want you to help as many families and acquire as much land as possible, you’re not going to purchase a $1-million home.”

As Elizabeth Rush details in Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, the result is that in New Jersey’s Blue Acres program following superstorm Sandy, for example, poorer historic waterfront communities in places like Lawrence Harbor were displaced, while on Long Beach Island, where towns rely on beach badge sales and property taxes for income, homes were rebuilt, and sand dunes were replenished.

Where no money is available, and relocation is voluntary, the reverse can happen. A Rising Sea Doesn’t Lift All Boats | Hakai Magazine explains that richer residents can self-relocate while poorer communities are left to fend for themselves. Worse, those fleeing the water may move to higher ground, displacing other poorer people who live there.

We need to start measuring what we care about rather than settling for caring about what we can measure.

In none of these instances are the fate of public infrastructure and habitat considered, and reconstruction can further damage fragile habitat and erode public access. Protection of properties with hard armoring leads to loss of beach habitat and access. Communities jealously guard what’s left, and recreational opportunities are lost.

Measuring What We Care About

Among all the cases of relocation or recovery studied in Rising, Elizabeth Rush found none where poorer communities had done well, although outcomes were better when the community was consulted and involved in the planning.

What’s needed is outreach to and consultation with all who use the shoreline to to come to an agreement on adaption, recovery, and who should pay for it. Essential to this are better models of the value of habitat, public infrastructure, and public access.

In other words we need to start measuring what we care about rather than settling for caring about what we can measure.

California Against the Sea

Since the original post, Rosanna Xia, LA Times coastal environmental reporter, has released her book California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline. This excellent book covers in much greater depth many of the points made in this post and more. It is a must-read for anyone dealing with or interested in sea-level rise.

California Against the Sea

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