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Sandy Aid Shouldn’t Pay for Bad Beach Building

By Rob Young
January 14, 2013 6:30 PM EST
Illustration by Andrew Neyer
Illustration by Andrew Neyer

The U.S. House of Representatives is preparing to resume discussion this week on the second part of an emergency spending bill to provide for recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Clearly, a significant amount of aid will be needed to repair the storm damage and help many people put their lives back together.

Unfortunately, the bill under consideration goes far beyond this immediate need. The House will vote on the legislation in two stages: $17 billion in largely emergency spending, then an additional $33.6 billion -- in an amendment offered by Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican -- for a variety of projects.

Of greatest concern is the proposal in the amendment to fund a massive coastal engineering effort that is not based on the best science or wise planning. It would give the Army Corps of Engineers about $3.5 billion to spend on any construction projects related to flood control and risk reduction that the Corps determines to be cost-effective. Projects would not need to have been previously authorized or reviewed, and environmental impacts would not be addressed in any meaningful way.

This is in addition to $821 million requested to repair Corps projects damaged by Hurricane Sandy (beach and dune building in New Jersey, for example).

Rebuilding Beaches

Even more troubling, the bill would allow the Corps to rebuild the New Jersey and New York beaches to their “design profile.” In other words, put them back in the condition they were in before the storm.

Coastal experts across the country have implored local and federal leaders to take a more enlightened approach to replacing buildings, roads, beaches and other public structures damaged by Hurricane Sandy -- to look for opportunities to change the footprint of a community to reduce its exposure to the next storm. This bill disregards that ideal in favor of putting every grain of sand right back where it was (and add more). We are to replace the entire coast.

On the positive side, the legislation includes $500,000 to evaluate the degree to which pre-existing beach and dune nourishment projects protected property during Hurricane Sandy. Although anecdotal evidence suggests that communities with engineered beaches fared better during the storm than others, this assertion has not been scientifically evaluated. Nor does a project’s success at reducing property damage automatically imply that it is cost-effective for federal taxpayers.

The paradox is that even as the bill recognizes the need to understand the effectiveness of these very expensive projects, it authorizes spending billions on new ones before the answers are in.

This is the wrong approach. Helping those displaced by a storm is urgent. Developing a long-term plan for reducing storm and flood risk along a heavily developed shoreline, on the other hand, requires time, good science and thorough evaluation. The current legislation invites a rush of bad decisions with little to no accountability. This is especially true for those projects authorized outside of the Hurricane Sandy impact area, which are not emergencies in any sense.

The vulnerability and viability of coastal resort communities, such as those along the New Jersey shore, is a deserving topic for a real debate, not a quick, emotional response. The shore protection projects proposed in this emergency bill are temporary fixes. In the long run, as the sea level continues to rise, the federal government will not be able to hold every beach in America in place. The costs are tremendous today, and they will only go up.

Louisiana Model

If we are going to authorize spending almost $4.5 billion for shore protection, we should do it fairly, from a national perspective. We should use the best science to assess which projects are likely to provide the most benefit and do the least environmental harm.

The folks in Louisiana have given us a model. Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan evaluated hundreds of potential coastal restoration and protection projects in a scientific and unbiased manner. Projects were then prioritized based on their potential outcomes and benefits, not on expediency or politics. There were winners and losers, but the process was fair and organized.

If federal taxpayers are going to be asked to spend billions on beach and dune engineering projects to protect private property and infrastructure, we need to know that the money will be allocated wisely. The proposed Emergency Supplemental Spending Bill now in Congress does not provide that assurance.

(Rob Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, is a co-author, with Orrin Pilkey, of “The Rising Sea.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Rob Young at ryoung@email.wcu.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.

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