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Surging storms: Can the US adapt in time to avert coastal damage?

Damage from severe storms such as Sandy is likely to escalate by the end of the century as the population grows and people continue to build along the Eastern Seaboard.

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Others point to the value of tougher construction standards for homes built along the coast. The National Academies report cites as an example homes built on the Bolivar Peninsula on Texas' Gulf Coast. Thirteen homes in a row on the peninsula were built to FORTIFIED for Safer Living standards from the Institute for Business and Home Safety, plus with some storm-savvy additions by the local contractor.

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"They were unaffectionately known at the time as the birdhouses," quips Timothy Reinhold, the institute's senior vice president for research and chief engineer, because the houses were on pilings that raised them nine feet above the ground. After hurricane Ike hit that location in 2008 with a 12-foot surge, 10 of the 13 birdhouses were still standing with the living space intact. Water leaked into the homes, but with hardwood floors and wooden walls, the structures could be reoccupied relatively quickly, if the owners had ladders tall enough to reach the door. Three of the homes were lost, not to the surge or wind per se, but to the relentless pounding of debris from other homes on the peninsula destroyed by Ike's surge.

For New York City, possible solutions to protect the metropolis from coastal flooding tend to focus on big-ticket engineering – ranging from strategically located surge barriers to artificial wetlands and restored oyster reefs. And therein lies one challenge facing areas deemed vulnerable to coastal flooding: money.

"There's clearly going to be less money" at the federal level for efforts to improve resilience, says Dr. Galloway. "Does that mean the responsibility and the funding will more and more be on the locals?"

Local authorities often aren't in a financial position to inspect, upgrade, or extend any levees or other flood-protection barriers they may have, he says. "If you don't have money, there's going to be real tough decisions; X is going to get money to protect their city and Y is not."

"I don't think that's a necessity," he adds. "It's possible for us to recognize that protecting our infrastructure and taking care of the health and welfare of the people that live in these high-risk areas is important. We may have to figure out a way to put more money into it."

Why everything can't just stay the same

Another challenge centers on personal or cultural attachments to a home, town, or geographic setting that has been heavily affected by coastal flooding or other natural hazards and likely will be again, notes Shirley Laska, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Orleans and a specialist on community responses to natural hazards. Rebuilding the old neighborhood as it was before is a strong pull for residents and politicians trying to restore a sense of normalcy to a stricken area. Global warming, however, could change that predisposition.

"People will start getting it into their thinking that they have to do something if they are impacted more than once," she says. "They start accepting that they have to change the way they live, that they can't go back to the way it was."

Ultimately, she says, the goal is to move vulnerable communities "more rapidly into thinking about how to achieve the goals they have for using this place, but that it be in a safer fashion. They have to come to grips with risk reduction as they are planning their future, and it can't be tomorrow. That's what climate change is telling us."

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