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Seaside Sprawl: Who Will Learn From the Tsunami Catastrophe?

January 18, 2005, 12am PST | Joel S. Hirschhorn
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The current tsunami disaster should cause serious rethinking of seaside development for all coastal locations, but there is little evidence that it will.  When people and developers refuse to see the folly of living at the water's edge, then government must step in and effectively protect people from themselves and nature from people.

 Joel S. HirschhornNatural disasters produce more than death and destruction. They give us lessons to learn. But when it comes to seaside devastation from repeated hurricanes hitting coastal areas in the U.S. and Caribbean islands and now the historic tsunami in the Indian Ocean, there is little evidence that governments and business interests learn from the past. Already in Thailand, hard hit by the tsunami, all the signs are that buildings for tourism will be put right back in the same seaside locations. And in U.S. coastal locations, such as those in Florida recently hit by several hurricanes, the same suffer-rebuild-suffer syndrome has played out. People seem incapable of tempering their desire to live and vacation as close as possible to the ocean. And business interests with the help of government agencies put profits above public safety.

Writing in the Washington Post about the recent tsunami disaster, Thailand journalist Joshua Kurlantzick said that "the Thai government imposed too few controls on tourism development; there were haphazard zoning rules for construction, and some land development allegedly enriched key politicians. On December 26, Thailand paid the price for its mismanagement." The same could be said about hurricane impacts on U.S. coastal development, except that it is not just tourist industry but home building interests that are time-blind.

Few people seem to understand that natural hazards are threats; they turn into disasters when the built environment intersects with extreme events of nature. Preventing disasters means not placing homes and people in the path of strong natural forces, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods. In the U.S., coastal lands are home for more than half the population, but comprise only 13 percent of the total land area. Development along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has been remarkable, with the population increasing over 100 percent from 26 million in 1950 to 53 million in 2000. In 1998, more than 50,000 housing units were built on barrier islands from Maine to Texas, double the construction rate of 1992. Coastal population density has skyrocketed. In 1960 it was 187 people per square mile, rising to 273 in 1994, and projected to rise to 327 by 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The average population density for the entire nation is just 76 people per square mile.

Make no mistake. Seaside sprawl developers turn hazards into disasters, and impact all of us. Rows of McMansions that bully many American shorelines offer great views for their occupants. But shore sprawl kills scenic views for the general public, either from the land or the beach. Coastal house size keeps increasing because of a booming rental business. In North Carolina, a 10,000-square-foot house with 16 bedrooms was built as a single-family house to skirt some development limitations; it will rent for as much as $20,000 a week. Lots cost from $500,000 to $1 million in North Carolina coastal areas.

A University of North Carolina study noted: "Human activity is routinely located so that it creates a serious threat to ourselves as well as to a wide variety of natural resources and functions, many of which are beneficial to people as well as valuable in and of themselves as part of an interrelated living ecosystem." In reality, the built environment is not nearly as resilient or recuperative as the natural environment. Development inevitably exacerbates the impacts on nature and people from periodic hazardous events, and in some cases actually precipitates a disaster. In Thailand as elsewhere, seaside development resulted in destruction of mangrove forests and coral reefs off the coast, which exacerbated the destruction from high water. And engineering controls, such as levees for controlling floods or jetties to control beach erosion, often are ineffective or just relocate adverse impacts.

In the many areas devastated by the recent tsunami, enormous amounts of foreign aid will probably ignore the wisdom of curbing seaside redevelopment, just as Americans have refused to learn from hurricanes. U.S. homeowners expect the government to always bail them out when disaster strikes. Most attempts at stemming development in hurricane-threatened coastal shore areas have failed. The 1982 Federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act, for example, withholds federal money for roads, utilities, disaster relief and flood insurance for designated environmentally fragile coastal locations not yet developed in 1982. It has not stopped developers, who go ahead, often with local and state government support. For example, in North Topsail Beach, North Carolina, in the middle of a federal zone, 960 houses and condos were built; the town paid no attention to the federal law. Its mayor is in the real estate business.

More people and government agencies should be concerned about sea level rise resulting from global warming. Real estate agents say "they're not making land any more." They are right. In fact, rising sea levels and poor land management already cause considerable coastal land to be lost, with much more loss predicted for the future. Along the Louisiana gulf coast about one football field size area is being lost every half hour, with thousands of square miles already lost. The Chesapeake Bay is expected to rise 4 to 12 inches by 2030. Buying a home near the shoreline and adjacent to coastal wetlands is shortsighted, and building even more homes in such areas is madness.

The 2003 report by the Pew Oceans Commission emphasized the many negative impacts of sprawl on coastal resources and their contributions to America's society and economy. If there is any place where smarter development is urgently needed, it is on coastal lands, which contrary to the thinking of pro-sprawl conservatives is limited. Someone who wants to live in a coastal area is not likely to see living in Missouri or South Dakota as equally attractive. When people and developers refuse to see the folly of living at the water's edge, then government must step in and effectively protect people from themselves and nature from people.


Joel S. Hirschhorn is the author of "Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money," and can be reached through his website www.sprawlkills.com.

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