Why do we rebuild our beaches, homes, and roads close to the shoreline only to see them washed away time and time again? Orrin H. Pilkey, emeritus professor of Earth Sciences at Duke University and author of The World’s Beaches, takes on this controversial subject in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. Pilkey addresses the impulse to “come back stronger and better” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, arguing that “though empowering, [this] is the wrong approach to the increasing hazard of living close to the rising sea. Disaster will strike again. We should not simply replace all lost property and infrastructure. Instead, we need to take account of rising sea levels, intensifying storms and continuing shoreline erosion.”
Noting a personal connection to the havoc natural disasters wreak—his parents’ home in Mississippi was flooded and subsequently destroyed in two separate hurricanes—Pilkey writes:
That is madness. We should strongly discourage the reconstruction of destroyed or badly damaged beachfront homes in New Jersey and New York. Some very valuable property will have to be abandoned to make the community less vulnerable to storm surges. This is tough medicine, to be sure, and taxpayers may be forced to compensate homeowners. But it should save taxpayers money in the long run by ending this cycle of repairing or rebuilding properties in the path of future storms. Surviving buildings and new construction should be elevated on pilings at least two feet above the 100-year flood level to allow future storm overwash to flow underneath. Some buildings should be moved back from the beach.
Although local governments are spending millions of dollars replenishing beaches, he says, “this is not the time for a solution based purely on engineering.” Ultimately, Pilkey argues, “officials should seek advice from oceanographers, coastal geologists, coastal and construction engineers and others who understand the future of rising seas and their impact on barrier islands.”