Elliott Epstein: We must prevent people from rebuilding in areas that will be devastated again

Earlier this month, in the wake of Hurricane Ian, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell advised Americans to “make informed decisions” about rebuilding in vulnerable affected areas. by natural disasters intensified by the climate crisis.

“People need to understand what their potential risk may be, whether it’s along the coast, inland along a river bed, or down a tornado alley,” Criswell said.

The only surprising thing about the FEMA official’s comment was the slight caveat he conveyed.

Ian had just dropped more than 20 inches of rain over central Florida and hit his Gulf Coast communities and barrier islands with 150-mile-per-hour winds and 12-foot storm surges. , causing around 100 deaths and tens of billions in property damage.

Following this disaster, Criswell should have shouted to the victims of the storm: “You live in a dangerous zone. Don’t even think about rebuilding in the same place!

While I enjoy the allure of residing near Florida’s white sand beaches and blue-green ocean waters, especially when I endure the snow, ice, and freezing temperatures of Maine winters, I finds it amazing that so few Floridians have learned lessons from putting themselves in harm’s way. After all, even children come to understand that you shouldn’t touch a hot stove after you’ve burned yourself.

Hurricanes are not new to Florida. According to the Florida Climate Center, every part of the state’s coastline has been affected by hurricane activity since records began in 1850, including Category 5 storms in 1935, 1992 (Andrew) and 2018. (Michael). But climate change has created conditions that make these storms even more destructive.

Citing a white paper from Florida State University’s Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, the Climate Center noted key trends in hurricane activity due to climate change:

• “Coastal flooding from storm surges is projected to increase independently of changes in storm intensity due to future sea level rise.

• “A noticeable trend towards slower storms has recently emerged.”

• “A greater proportion of storms reached major hurricane strength (category 3-5) in recent years.”

• “Locations where hurricanes reach their peak intensity have moved from the equator poleward and westward, or closer to land in the Atlantic Basin.”

In other words, Floridians should expect future hurricanes to arrive in their neighborhood more often, reach greater intensity, linger longer, and cause larger storm surges.

Residents of the Sunshine State, however, don’t get the message. Florida’s coastal population is expected to decline as its residents move to safer ground. Instead, whether due to psychological denial, a failure to grasp the implications of climate change, or sheer inertia, quite the opposite is happening. The population grew from around 17.8 to 21.8 million between 2010 and 2021, most near the coast.

This curious blind spot is confirmed by a 2021 Marist poll, which found that two-thirds of Americans say they would rather rebuild than move if their home is hit by a natural disaster.

Ultimately, it will likely take government regulation and economic disincentives to slow or reverse Florida’s coastal population growth. Stricter waterfront land zoning laws based on updated flood-prone maps, stricter building codes, and higher home and flood insurance premiums will make homes increasingly unaffordable for many. .

It’s not just Florida residents who should be concerned. On the Atlantic coast, vulnerable areas in the Carolinas, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and New England are all increasingly at risk from climate change.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recently predicted that sea levels along the US coast will rise, on average, 10 to 12 inches over the next 30 years. In addition to adding to the destructive power of severe storms, this increase will increase seasonal flooding in low-lying coastal areas, accelerate coastal erosion, and lead to salinization of tidal rivers.

Even Maine’s coast can’t feel safe from the threat of hurricanes, though much of its coastline slopes seaward rather than crepe like Florida’s.

Caribbean Tropical Storm Fiona, which intensified into a Category 4 hurricane in late September, gave a taste of what a hurricane could do to coastal Maine. As it hit the eastern provinces of Canada, it produced wind gusts of over 99 miles per hour and waves of up to 26 feet. The storm caused major flooding, uprooted thousands of trees and left 500,000 customers without power.

One need only imagine the low houses, spread like pearls along the sandy beaches of Maine’s south coast, from Scarborough to York, to imagine the damage Fiona could have done there if she had taken a slightly different route.

Our ocean coasts are exquisitely beautiful and you should never miss the opportunity to sail, swim or walk there. But living alongside them has become a sure way to avert disaster.

Elliott Epstein is a litigator at Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 16 years, analyzes current events in a historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child”, a book about the notorious murder of Angela Palmer in 1984. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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