Diane Burko, “USA COVID” (2020)

Congress’s Beach Failure

Cornelia Dean is right on. She chronicles the long series of congressional attempts to control coastal development, while the parallel actions of land owners, developers, coastal businesses, and politicians have circumvented, eroded, and eventually altered these regulations to protect buildings, rather than beaches.

The situation reflects, in part, that coastal property owners tend to be well-off and have more political clout than the collective will of Congress. Her concern is well timed, as the deterioration of America’s beaches is growing only worse. The anticipated intensification of storms with climate change is now a reality, and the accelerating sea-level rise is documented. These facts make the recognition and modification of the role of the federal government in the ongoing coastal crisis all the more important. Recognition of the “big five” changes in the evolution of hurricanes is critical: they are becoming larger, more powerful, slower moving (longer duration), more frequent, and often changing from tropical storms to hurricanes more rapidly.

We would add two other areas where Congress has failed in conserving America’s shores: the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, and the role of the US Army Corps of Engineers. As Dean notes, the federal response after the 1962 Ash Wednesday Nor’easter was to develop policies to reduce the need for disaster relief. The National Flood Insurance Act (NFIA) of 1968 was intended to both discourage development in high-hazard zones and produce revenues to offset flood losses. The failure on both fronts is well documented. And the Stafford Act, passed 20 years later, effectively restored disaster aid to the same high-hazard areas the NFIA was intended to replace—a double failure as more money is now pumped into beach nourishment, encouraging redevelopment that will then face the next disaster. And revenues of the National Flood Insurance Program, established under NFIA, fall shorter every year in offsetting flood losses. With the potential liability of the flood insurance program at $1.3 trillion, where is the fiscally conservative Congress? Why, in a time of suggesting congressional repeal of a health care program for all Americans, does no politician make an issue of the spiraling flood insurance program debt: a trillion-dollar risk for who?

We also question why the Army Corps, funded by Congress and responsible for the nation’s waterways, does not take a proactive role in conserving beaches. Historically a proponent of shore-hardening, the Corps now finds much of its role to be as the primary overseers of beach nourishment and of state-permitting of coastal structures relative to navigable waters. But as Dean points out, such nourishment is both detrimental and folly if thought to be a long-term solution, given, for example, the rapid loss of replacement sand, limited sand supply, and spiraling costs. The time has come for Congress to give stronger direction to the Corps for actions to promote coastal conservation with long-term monitoring of projects, and to levy economic or social penalties for failure of projects.

In several ways, Dean’s review is analogous to the present COVID-19 response of ignoring the science, of politicizing a collective threat, of arrogance in refusing to take proper precautions, and of an expectation of bailout. When the coastal ecologist Stephen Leatherman said, “There is a constituency of ignorance on the coast,” it was another way of saying that science was being ignored. This is true in all of Dean’s examples. And the attitude that individual property is more important than the collective good—that is, there is a constituency of arrogance at the shore—has eroded the law as fast as nature erodes the backshore.

Coastal development, and more importantly the growing coastal population, should be the focus of Congress. The congressional programs noted have fueled the rush to the shore. The increased population is at an increased risk of not being able to safely evacuate before a storm arrives. As storms of all kinds, along with massive wildfires, increase due to global climate change, the problems of evacuation have come to the fore. By and large, the escape highways on barrier islands are low-lying, narrow, two-lane roads with sandy shoulders, leading to the few bridges to the mainland, and those are usually at low elevations. Add to this, the number of inlets expected to form will increase during storms, blocking escape by late evacuees. Hurricane or nor’easter, the new conditions may mean a death toll for countless people as well as billions of dollars in property losses. We support Dean’s call to action at both the congressional level and within state governments—it’s time to follow the science.

James B Duke Professor of Geology Emeritus

Duke University

Emeritus Professor of Geology

Grand Valley State University

Cornelia Dean places responsibility for intensive coastal development on the National Flood Insurance Program, but Roger Pielke Jr. provides deeper context for understanding dynamic challenges with coastal communities.

Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier is to science policy what the 1969 report to Congress Our Nation and the Sea is to coastal policy. The later report, a result of what is commonly known as the Stratton Commission after its chair, Julius A. Stratton, served as the foundation for many of the Nixon administration’s environmental science initiatives, including the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For many people, NOAA was seen as America’s “Wet NASA,” and it was saddled with the temerity of space exploration.

Participants in the congressional hearing to create the Stratton Commission eagerly invoked the sea as “mankind’s last frontier,” and framed basic research “in all [its] various ramifications” as a primary tool for colonization. Though the commission thought less of the frontier metaphor than did Congress, it too invoked the metaphor, arguing that NOAA would serve to “open up the marine frontier.” The shoreline was the stepping-off point for this venture, and theoretically “it could be increased almost without limit” to accommodate demand, primarily for homes.

The contribution of homeownership to the US economy can never be overstated. From construction to tourism to mortgage-backed securities to building equity for college tuitions, a large portion of economic power is attributable to housing. Additional significance is found in the assumption that wealth accumulation through property serves as an effective means of allocating an economic safety net.

Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program the year before Our Nation and the Sea was released. The program’s necessity was considered in respect to ensuring continued growth in homeownership despite damage from weather extremes. Its success was understood to be contingent on avoiding unwise land use.

Nixon placed NOAA within the Department of Commerce, underscoring the vision that its activities would serve to drive economic growth. Soon NOAA was also charged with coordinating coastal management between federal, state, and local authorities. To this end, publicly funded research on coastal risks provides governments with much-needed information.

However, if the frontier metaphor is as powerful a sedative to self-reflection as Pielke argues, it helps to explain the unabashed development of the shoreline. The metaphor also serves to free the scientific community for its role in shifting understandings of flood risk in ways that lead to instability in insurance pricing, wreaking havoc on community cohesion, and undermining efforts to maintain access to the nation’s primary form of wealth creation: homeownership.

Advancing risk science has illuminated coastal dynamics, but uncomfortably it is accompanied by grave socioeconomic consequences to which the research response is dulled by the guise of a frontier.

Debate about the National Flood Insurance Program and coastal development is about (re)negotiating the terms of social interdependence. For science to demonstrate its social value in this context, it must respond to the breakdown in shared prosperity born from fractionalization of people and space by risk science. Such an effort would embody the call to responsibility and accountability shared by Pielke and Dean.

Assistant Professor, Coastal and Ocean Policy

Department of Public and International Affairs

University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Cite this Article

“Congress’s Beach Failure.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 2 (Winter 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Winter 2021