Venkata: When you can’t just rise above it; storm surge and coastal real estate

Vicious cycle of fortifying, withstanding, rebuilding and fortifying again in wake of hurricanes seems inadequate.

by Uma Venkata

Hurricane Florence would have happened, regardless of climate change. But the fact of the matter is that change in climate means a change in storms, too. 

Like many of their peers, researchers at Stony Brook University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have recently looked into exactly how climate change had a hand in the effects of Florence. Their conclusions are that climate change exacerbated the storm and that without climate change, there would have been half as much water dropped onto the most-hit areas — making the diameter of the storm about 80 kilometers (50 miles) smaller. Florence’s storm data is updated on a daily basis, and it will be extensively studied with regard to climate change. In some parts of the world, droughts will strengthen, and in others, tropical storms will increase in frequency and force, representing plentiful opportunity for further research. Data will be plentiful.

The point of saying this is not to advocate for greater climate research — though, as a whole, we need this very badly, and thankfully, dedicated researchers are giving it their all. The meaning of climate research itself, for the point of my argument, is a more than just few layers deep. 

We can study the timing and strength of storms, but an increase in frequency and strength of tropical storms ensures our cities and homes lie in the path of hurricanes that are at greater and more frequent risk of occurrence. This means we should be actively revamping housing norms, or in the case of sparsely-populated, resource-light, and at-risk areas, consider relocatation entirely.

This is easy for me to say. I live in Minnesota — landlocked and loving it. I’m not the one who would have to leave the site of my home, which, for generations, has been on beautiful land that my family is attached to. I understand that leaving this is difficult — just ask any Native American. I understand why a family would prefer to remain on gorgeous coastland; it is absolutely stunning there.

However, when we finally concede that storms will become a more frequent reality, it’s hard to justify living there. Building stilted or ultra-fortified homes can do the trick, but only when the entire neighborhood is completely tied down, as one of the biggest problems from these storms is unsecured, flying debris. Moving the city of Charleston is not on the table, but smaller settlements should begin to mull a move rather than a continual, annual cycle of fortifying, withstanding, rebuilding and fortifying again.

The other, more pressing matter is the statistical danger that more frequent hurricanes (or in the Pacific, typhoons) pose to human life. As of Wednesday, 37 people have died due to Florence, in locations where evacuations were widely encouraged. Interestingly enough, people tend to prepare and evacuate less for storms with female names rather than male ones, leading to more casualties for hurricanes with female names. 

Tropical storms like Irma, Maria, and Florence will not abate. For those who choose to wait them out without the proper preparation — and God forbid that eventually, proper preparation may not exist or be adequate — the federal government is and should be happy to spend millions on rescue, even after residents have refused to evacuate. But living in the path of an inevitable, frequent storm surge will eventually become folly. Maybe the best solution is just to move out before the housing market drowns.