Should Taxpayers Have to Keep Waterfront Homes Afloat?

William Brangham takes a look at Norfolk, Virginia, where rising sea levels have made major floods increasingly commonplace – and increasingly burdensome for taxpayers.

2 minute read

May 3, 2012, 10:00 AM PDT

By Ryan Lue

Perched on the southern shore of Virginia and perforated by an extensive network of inlets, the City of Norfolk is at the forefront of the battle between coastal cities and a rising sea. Norfolk has always been vulnerable to occasional inundation, but in recent years, floods causing major property damage have become a nearly annual occurrence.

For Norfolk, the shift in sea level is compounded by geological factors that have caused the land to sink at roughly the same rate as the water rises. Thus, what happens in Norfolk may well be a sign of things to come for coastal towns throughout the country.

The city has consulted firms in the Netherlands, where settlements have held close to waterways for centuries, for insight on how to manage the dilemma in coming years. The solutions they proposed (by no means permanent) could cost upwards of $300 million. Mayor Paul Fraim argues that the Navy, which has a strong presence in Norfolk, has a shared responsibility for the protection of the area.

Brangham argues that public policy, such as subsidized flood insurance, has much to do with waterfront development patterns. By maintaining such policies, he writes, the government softens the risk of building in untenable areas, at the expense of taxpayers everywhere. "The private insurance industry got out of writing flood policies in risky areas many years ago, and now the federal government is currently the biggest backstop for losses in flood-prone areas."

In the face of unyielding tides, Fraim has proposed "retreat zones" that would designate areas unfit for future development. "I'm not sure the community is ready for that, but in the next twenty or thirty years, there will be places in the city that will just contain water all the time, and we need to be prepared for that inevitability."

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