Sea Level Rise Added Billions of Dollars to Hurricane Sandy’s Storm Surge Damage

When it comes to sea level rise, buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents need to be aware of both the increased occurrence of nuisance flooding — tidal floodwaters that inundate neighborhoods on sunny days — and storm surges that can strike quickly and inflict billions of dollars in damages in a very short time.

A study recently released by researchers at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists dedicated to informing the public about climate change, demonstrated the threat sea-level-rise-fueled storm surges pose to coastal communities. The researchers gathered information about Hurricane Sandy and concluded that a few additional inches of sea level rise contributed over $8 billion dollars worth of damage to the $62.7 billion the super storm inflicted on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

To arrive at that astonishing figure, the researchers analyzed water levels during Hurricane Sandy and compared it with an estimate of how high the water would have risen without human-caused sea level rise. Based on a conservative estimate of just over four inches of sea level rise added between 1900 and 2012, the year Hurricane Sandy struck, they estimated that sea level rise added $8.1 billion to the total tab the states had to spend repairing storm damage, including power grids and transportation networks.

The researchers noted in their analysis that economic damages may have been much higher than stated in their report. “Our estimates do not account for potential long-term economic effects, such as losses and gains in broad economic activity associated with employment and production changes across industries in the aftermath of a damaging cyclone event,” they wrote.

Climate Central’s chief scientist and CEO Benjamin Strauss, Ph.D., put the report in perspective: “Just a hands-width of sea level rise from climate change caused more than 10 percent of the damage from Sandy’s towering floodwaters. The implications are enormous. For any lesser ocean flood, the percentage must be higher.”

Clearly buyers, sellers, owners, and real estate agents can’t afford to ignore the influence ever-rising seas have on damaging storm surges when they’re evaluating coastal properties.

Sea Level Rise Reality: No Roads, No Real Estate

Communities from Hawaii to the Florida Keys are already confronting a harsh reality of sea level rise flooding. When flood waters inundate or undermine roads, they have a choice: spend millions or even billions of dollars to save the roads, or abandon them and the real estate that relies on them.

According to a recent report by Mahealani Richardson for HawaiiNewsNow, sea level rise-driven erosion recently caused 1,500 feet of highway to collapse in Haaula, a town on O’ahu. The state is spending $600,000 on emergency repairs, but a permanent solution to save the coastal highway from rising seas could cost up to $1.5 billion for a dozen miles.

Ed Sniffen, a highways administrator, told NewsNow, “It’s a huge but complex situation that we have to consider. Not only are we affecting who can drive through that area in the future, but access to that area in the future.”

Monroe County officials in the Florida Keys are facing the same challenge. According to an article by Theresa Java posted on KeysNews.com, county commissioners there are considering whether to elevate a road in Stillwright Point that flooded 91 days between September and December or abandon it altogether. The road’s fate — and the property owners who rely on it to get around — will depend on how much it will cost to save the road and, considering that seas continue to rise, how much time the repair will buy.

The county’s resiliency officer said a billion dollars probably isn’t enough to save all of the county’s 314 miles of roads. Mayor Heather Carruthers said, “This is the very beginning of very difficult decisions that governments around the world will be forced to make.”

If you search “sea level rise road” on Google, you’ll find dozens of cities and town are confronting the same sea level rise problem. Finding a solution isn’t just a cost-benefit question. Officials also have to consider the decision’s impact on local residents. In some cases, residents have threatened to sue if the government abandons their lifeline roads.

Buyers taking a look at real estate in coastal areas need to consider not only whether or not a property of interest is experiencing sea level rise flooding, they also have to consider how sea level rise flooding is impacting critical infrastructure, such as roads and water and sewer service. The floodwaters could not only prevent them from getting around and receiving critical services, they could also result in a huge tax hike if a community has to initiate projects to save the infrastructure. In a worst case scenario, flooding could force them to move.

Infrastructure issues are discussed in detail in “7 Sea Level Rise Real Estate Questions.”