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Saturday, Nov 01, 2014
Editorials

Let's fight rising sea, not plan to flee inland

Published:

In President Obama's recent speech on what the nation should do to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, he briefly mentioned helping coastal cities prepare for ever-rising oceans.

Those of us living in coastal areas want to hear more about that. With some scientists predicting sea levels will go up four feet this century, the 2.5 million Florida residents who live less than four feet above high tide are very interested in what they can do to keep their communities dry and property values high.

If scientific projections are in the ballpark -- and some scientists such as Florida State University Professor emeritus James O'Brien think any rise will be much slower - those of us who have invested in coastal living have two choices: stay and resist or cut losses and run. We plan to stay.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote that coastal areas, including the Florida Keys, New Orleans, and parts of Long Island "eventually may need to be abandoned to higher seas. As a start toward depopulating those areas, the federal government may need to cut off disaster insurance."

This is nonsense.

Coastal towns need to make wise decisions about where new waterfront projects are permitted and how they are built, and let's appreciate the great storm-absorbing capacity of tidal marshes and dunes. But talk of depopulating a thriving beach community on the basis of unproven projections is extreme.

It would take a force as strong as the sea itself to push the feisty residents of the Conch Republic inland to Homestead.

Let's remember that the most frightening levels of increase are only estimates. What we know with confidence is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports sea levels were steady from the year 0 AD until 1900, when the sea began to rise. The historic measurements in St. Petersburg show, from 1947 to 2006, a trend of 2.36 millimeters per year, or about 9.25 inches in 100 years.

That rate appears to be increasing. Satellite measurements now show a general increase of 12 inches per century. What is much less certain is if that rate is continuing to accelerate and if so, by how much.

At times during his speech, Obama's optimism clashed with the details. He cheerily noted that 520 miles of coastline around New York City are being fortified, as though other cities could do the same.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan will cost $20 billion, about as much as the taxable value of all the property in Tampa. Less costly responses are urgently needed.

Obama hinted that federal money would help coastal communities build seawalls and safeguard water supplies, and he warned that any new project funded with taxpayer dollars will have to be built to withstand higher floods.

"We'll partner with communities," he promised.

Expect Congress to be less generous. A poll released earlier this year by Stanford University found that most Americans think the costs of coastal protection should be paid by coastal residents themselves, not by all taxpayers. The most popular policy solution, according the poll, is tougher building codes for new structures.

But an overwhelming majority - 81 percent - believes it's smart for coastal towns to find ways to mitigate the threat of rising seas instead of doing nothing.

That's sensible. Local governments, including those in the Tampa area, should make it a priority to investigate possible safeguards and their costs.

Even a small change, such as a current project in Miami Beach to raise a road by six inches, could make a big difference during an evacuation.

The demand for federal disaster-protection dollars is sure to exceed available revenue. Those projects will create local jobs, lead to lower insurance rates and add confidence to the local real estate market. The competition for federal assistance will steadily increase, so delay in making plans could prove costly.

Obama said even if his mitigation efforts are enacted and the rest of the world does likewise, "The planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe."

If he's right about that, then so will the politics. This won't be the sort of rising tide that lifts all boats.

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