From Climate Central:
Long Beach Island is the largest and richest barrier island in New Jersey, an oasis of sprawling oceanfront retreats and second homes located midway down the state’s heavily developed coast, a two-hour drive from the metropolitan centers of New York City and Philadelphia. On a clear day, visitors in the southern end can see the shiny facades of the Atlantic City casinos rising like obelisks across Great Bay. In the north, historic Barnegat Lighthouse towers over an unruly inlet steadied by boulders stretching into the Atlantic Ocean. In many places, the long, slender island is barely a few feet above sea level. And like most of New Jersey’s coast, it has been eroding for decades, leaving it vulnerable to flooding and rising seas.
Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pumped more than ten million cubic yards of sand from offshore dredges to widen Long Beach Island’s beaches and dunes – part of a Sisyphean-like effort to protect the island’s $15 billion of high-calorie real estate. But there is a problem. The sand keeps washing away. A series of storms over the last two years gouged the neatly groomed beaches, costing tens of millions in additional repairs. When all is said and done, the project will cost more than half a billion dollars, most of the money paid by U.S. taxpayers.
Like other barrier islands up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Long Beach Island is drowning in slow motion. Over the last century, researchers estimate that the ocean and bays that flank the island have risen by about a foot. That doesn’t sound like much, but the added water has made a huge difference in life on the island. Barnegat Bay now routinely washes over the bulkheads and floods the streets. Occasionally, school buses have to wait for the water to recede to pick up or drop off children. Even more worrisome, the rising water makes it easier for storm surge and waves to do more damage in violent storms such as Hurricane Sandy, which wrecked Long Beach Island and the back-bay communities in Ocean County in October of 2012.
Dave Rinear’s small bungalow on Cedar Bonnet Island – a smudge mark of sand and sedge located just behind Long Beach Island – had the misfortune of facing a vast, open fetch of Barnegat Bay. Surges from Sandy lifted a 24-foot speedboat named Plan B from its winter mooring and launched it into Rinear’s cedar shake cottage, blowing out a wall and washing away most of the contents, including 50 years worth of prized fishing journals. “Talk about laser-guided misfortune,” the 72-year-old retired professor moaned. “That thing came up the bay like a laser-guided missile with my name on it.”
Rinear’s bungalow was totaled. But he filed a claim with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and received enough to help him rebuild a larger new house on the same footprint. In all, the federal flood program paid out $8 billion in Sandy-related claims. More than $2 billion went to property owners in Ocean County, including $200 million on Long Beach Island. That was nearly twentyfold what island property owners had collected in the prior 35 years of the program.
Today, the NFIP is effectively bankrupt. It owes the U.S. Treasury nearly $25 billion – money it borrowed from federal taxpayers to cover its obligations in Sandy, Katrina (2005), and Hurricane Ike (2008). No one expects that money to be repaid. Some coastal state lawmakers are even calling for Congress to write off the massive debt, contending it is the only way the troubled insurance program, which is up for reauthorization this year, can regain its financial footing.
Wiping away the debt will help. But it is only a matter of time until the next big storm drains the coffers again. Even relatively weak hurricanes cause hundreds of millions in damage, while monster storms like Katrina and Sandy cause billions. Complicating matters, the NFIP has improbably subsidized thousands of risky properties along the coast – low-lying houses that flood over and over – by charging them below-market premiums to entice them to join the program.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The government got into the flood insurance business reluctantly, and only after private insurers fled the market because it was too risky and unpredictable. When Congress finally passed the NFIP in 1968, it was intended in part to steer development away from vulnerable floodplains. However, many coastal communities ignored the restrictions and filled the nation’s barrier islands and back bays with property. The value of land and property on the New Jersey coast soared from less than $1 billion in 1960 to over $170 billion today. Most of that property is located in what NFIP officials call Special Flood Hazard Areas, low-lying places likely to flood and suffer extreme damage in catastrophic storms.
Today, at least $3 trillion worth of property lines the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Much of it is insured by the NFIP, including approximately one million second homes and investment properties. Rising sea levels will make it easier for future storms and waves to damage those houses by elevating the angle of attack. “Think of it this way,” says Kopp, “if the flood level is five feet and you add a foot of sea level, then the new flood level is six feet. That elevates the platform (for surge and waves). It’s that simple.”
A 2016 Rutgers study found that seas near New Jersey could rise between 1 and 1.8 feet by the middle of this century under a scenario of low carbon emissions. But under a high emissions scenario, seas could swell as high as 4.5 feet by 2100. Recently, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study estimated mean global sea levels could rise as high as 8 feet by the end of the century.
Several more feet of water would be devastating, swallowing vast swaths of real estate, according to several studies. A June 2014 report called Risky Business, prepared by a group co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, estimated that between $66 billion and $160 billion worth of U.S. real estate could be below sea level by 2050 – and up to half-a-trillion by the end of this century.