Flooding from storms like Hurricane Harvey and Irma are reminders that we should consider slowing coastal development, a Clemson University researcher says

CLEMSON, South Carolina — In the rush to be close to nature or create economic growth, how structural changes impact the coastal environment is often lost.

NASA satellite image shows Hurricane Harvey over Texas.

Image Credit: NASA

“If we allowed many of our coastal geomorphological systems to return to their natural functions — as they are an inherently dynamic area — and we didn’t harden them through coastal development and impervious surfaces, they would provide buffers and reduce risk far better than they currently do,” said Caitlin Dyckman, associate professor in Clemson University’s city planning and real estate development department. “Just look at our National Estuarine Research Reserves Systems, such as the ones in South Carolina (i.e., the ACE Basin and the North Inlet-Winyah Bay) and their lessons for estuarine function. After all, we don’t live in our national parks, but we still appreciate and benefit from them.”

Hurricane Harvey left its mark earlier this week after it barreled into Texas leaving areas completely devastated. Although it’s the first category four hurricane to hit the coast in more than a decade, many Americans still remember and are even feeling the impact of past systems like Sandy and Katrina. On Sept. 5, 2017, Hurricane Irma was declared the largest hurricane in Atlantic history with 180 mph winds. At the time, Irma had the Florida Keys and Miami square in its sites.

“Booming tourism at the coast has resulted in an increase in coastal populations,” Dyckman said. “Suburban sprawl in these communities isn’t just a transit legacy, it’s an economic legacy. People profit off of the tourism economy, but there are environmental repercussions that need to be taken into consideration as we continue to develop beach communities.”

Originally from California, Dyckman is no stranger to the perks of coastal living, but she’s also aware of the realities that come with it. Changes to the landscape and the environment occurring from increased coastal populations are undeniable. With the threat of rising sea levels and worsened storms, Dyckman suggests that it’s time to start looking at a more permanent solution.

“We’re not going to see people leave historic cities like Charleston, South Carolina, or New York, but we need to examine the development we’re doing in smaller areas and newer beach towns. We need to look at the ethos of furthering beach town development and realize that it’s not sustainable for the long term.”

Satellite image of the Texas coast showing a drop of 2 cm.

Dyckman and a group of researchers from around the country are interested in further exploring why people have a continued interest in beach living even though bigger, stronger storms like Harvey and Irma are becoming more frequent. Through continued research, she hopes to answer some of these questions and also examine the government’s role and the policies they can put in place to facilitate managed retreat.

“Houston is in a floodplain and urban development has altered its original hydrology and increased its impervious surfaces, reducing the system’s ability to absorb water. If we continue to utilize lands for development that were once buffers for storm surges or large rainfall events, this will become our new normal,” Dyckman said. “We’ve got to begin examining this issue and approaching it with a different mindset, one that will allow not only for growth but also sustainability.”

This issue isn’t only affecting the United States. For the past several decades, the Dutch government has been examining ways to keep citizens safe with increased flood zones, which they attribute to changes in climate and rising sea levels. With much of the Netherlands sitting below sea level, they decided to buy back lands that were prone to flooding, creating emergency reservoir areas and allowing the hydrologic systems to function as they did historically as well as relocating citizens to higher ground as part of their resilience planning efforts.

“We can and should have a relationship with the water and our coastal communities, but I believe that requires us to resort to a way of life that is similar to what we saw with Native American tribes like the Coast Miwoks. We can continue to camp on and visit our beaches without hardening them in deleterious ways such as Destin, Florida. But this requires a shared societal understanding that, for the most part, they’re too dynamic to be treated as a permanent home.”

With a doctorate in city and regional planning from the University of California Berkeley and a law  degree from the U.C. Davis King Hall School of Law, Dyckman’s research focuses on issues like, but not limited to: water rights restructuring in response to climate change, coastal and shoreline management innovations, integration of municipal and household-level water conservation opportunities into urban planning and planners’ roles in federally funded watershed-based planning. Color satellite image shows Hurricane Irma's size and intensity.

“While the recent amendments to the National Flood Insurance Program have somewhat improved the accuracy of assessing and distributing the risk of living in a velocity zone, we also have to think about the social equity that that entails (i.e., that eventually, only those with wealth will be able to afford to live at the beach). Until we more fundamentally ask whether anyone should be living at the beach we will continue having disastrous storms that are costly, both financially and socially,” she said. “Scientific research shows that the sea levels are rising and that means that in some areas flooding will become our new normal. It’s time that we begin having conversations about how we can develop safer communities for all.”

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