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.

Coastal Real Estate Buyers, Owners & Agents Need to Start Paying Attention to Storm Surge Prevention Projects

A major impact of global warming is stronger storms with more powerful storm surges. Climate change-driven sea level rise will also further magnify the ability of storm surges to inundate valuable real estate.

Cities along the U.S. coast are shifting from considering the threats stronger storm surges pose to local real estate to actually proposing solutions. Real estate buyers and owners need to pay close attention to what’s appearing on the drawing boards. The surge control projects could impact their property values, businesses, tax rates and quality of life.

Real estate agents need to stay current so they’re armed with facts when buyers, sellers and owners ask for the latest information about projects in their farm areas.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, ground zero for sea level rise flooding, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently unveiled a draft plan that would spend $4.6 billion on a series of 1-to-13 foot tall sea walls and pumps to protect 2.8 million people and tens of thousands of buildings worth $311 billion from storm surges. According to a Miami Herald article, the project also calls for moveable barriers to be installed at the mouths of three waterways and the elevation of thousands of buildings.

The Corps of Engineers is holding online public hearings regarding storm surge the plan this week. The impact on some property owners could be enormous. For example, a thirteen foot wall and pump stations would certainly change the view from front-line properties. The loss of a beautiful view would impact the quality of life for the owners as well as property values.

In addition, current estimates are that local taxpayers would have to bear up to 35% of the project cost while the federal government would pick up the remainder. Depending on how the project financing is structured, property owners could face substantial tax hikes. (After Covid-19 rocked the economy and government budgets, funding is bound to be a big X-factor even for projects that receive a stamp of approval.)

According to an article on the YaleEnvironment360 website, ambitious storm surge control projects are also being considered in Charleston, SC, Galveston, TX, coastal communities in New Jersey, and in and around New York City. Real estate buyers and owners in coastal areas need to keep up on the latest developments to weigh the benefits and costs of the the proposed projects. Put another way, they need to ask if the projects will protect their property, property value and quality of life without emptying their wallets.

It’s important to note that the storm surge project in Miami-Dade isn’t intended to protect communities from the increased tidal flooding that will occur as sea levels continue to rise in the decades to come. That will take a whole other effort, if it’s possible at all. This is due to the fact that South Florida is built on porous limestone, which allows seawater to easily flow beneath structures such as seawalls. Things are, indeed, getting complicated for coast-dwellers.

Buyers Need to Consider Fresh Water Sources When Purchasing Real Estate in Communities at Risk from Sea Level Rise

As sea levels rise, many coastal communities are concerned that salty ocean water will contaminate water wells that provide fresh water to millions of residents. The loss of a fresh water source would be devastating to a city or town. Trying to find new sources, if it’s even possible, could be expensive. This issue should be of concern to real estate buyers in coastal communities.

The saltwater intrusion problem isn’t theoretical. For example, in 2007 researchers at Florida State University surveyed water planners to predict what would happen if seas rose 6-to-18 inches by 2057. Half the planners were concerned that their wells would be threatened by tidal salt water traveling up coastal rivers where water intakes and wells were located.

Kenneth Miller, an earth scientist at Rutgers University, told YaleEnvironment360 this week that the combination of heavy development on barrier islands with low elevations and broad exposure to ocean water puts New Jersey and other locations around the world at risk of saltwater intrusion.

South Florida residents could get a taste of the future this summer. The densely populated region is experiencing a deepening drought that’s forcing water managers to enforce watering restrictions and move water around in canals to prevent wildfires in the Everglades. As fresh water supplies are drawn down, there’s the risk that saltwater will try to fill the void, which could put wells at risk.

Whether salt water intrusion becomes a problem remains to be seen, but the situation certainly exposes a situation that many real estate buyers in coastal areas are not aware of that’s only going to get worse in the years to come. Clearly, knowing how secure a community’s supply of fresh water, or even a private well, is from saltwater intrusion is an important point to consider when buying property in areas near the sea.

Public Activism Can Help Mitigate Sea Level Rise Flooding Problems

Owners of real estate in areas now experiencing sea level rise flooding can fight back by teaming up and going public with their plight. That’s the experience of an Ocean City, NJ, woman whose neighborhood flooded on a regular basis.

Suzanne Hornick shared her story with Samantha Harrington, a reporter for the Yale Climate Connections website. Hornick said the flooding in her neighborhood has worsened over the decades her family has owned property in Ocean City. Fed up, she fought back by creating a Facebook page that documented the flooding and by joining with her neighbors to form the Ocean City, NJ, Flooding Committee. The committee demanded that the city deal with the problem. They even distributed “Fix our flooding now” signs that residents displayed on their lawns.

By aggressively demanding relief, Hornick and her group developed a contentious relationship with local city officials. Then they had a breakthrough when she consulted with Tom Herrington, a coastal scientist and director of the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University. Herrington, who grew up in Ocean City, advised Hornick and the group about how to gather tidal and flood data that could be used to convince the city to take concrete steps to solve the flooding problem wherever possible, which it did. As a result of all their efforts, Hornick says she hasn’t had flooding on her street in a year.

Hornick, the group, and the city can’t rest on their laurels, however. They still have to take additional steps to address the continuously rising seas.

With sea level rise flooding on the rise in communities along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, real estate owners can’t afford to take a passive approach when it comes to protecting what for most is their greatest investment: Their homes. Gathering data, taking photos, building a website and forming flood-focused interest groups, is a great way to appeal to officials and the public for relief.

New Jersey First to Consider Climate Change and Sea Level Rise in Building Permitting Process

New Jersey, considered one of the top at-risk states for sea level rise flooding, is the first state to consider legislation that would force builder to include information about how their projects would impact climate change and be impacted by sea level rise when they’re seeking building permits.

This week, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the permitting requirement was included in New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan. The state is shooting for 100 percent clean energy by the middle of this century. One of the ways to achieve this is by requiring builders to declare how much greenhouse gas emissions their projects will emit. In addition, the state wants them to state clearly how climate change will impact their projects. In coastal areas, that will mean studying how sea level rise flooding could affect a project.

“For New Jersey to step to the forefront and say, ‘We’re going to look at future climate impacts, and that it’s going to be a driver of our decision-making’ — that’s exactly what all 50 states need to be doing,” Rob Moore, an official with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times.

Governor Murphy tweeted that the goal of the Energy Master Plan is to: “Drive a world-leading innovation economy; Ensure environmental justice for all residents; Create good-paying jobs; Protect our ecosystems; Improve public health, and; Lead the way in the global clean energy transition.”

Scientists predict that New Jersey will see up to two feet of sea level rise by 2050. This will create enormous problems for the state, which has 130 miles of vulnerable coastline.

Some environmental groups complain that the plan isn’t firm enough in blocking new fossil fuel-related projects. Business groups are concerned about the potential cost their members will face due to the new requirements.

New Jersey Could See Over 6 Feet of Sea Level Rise by 2100

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NDJEP) recently released a study that concludes seas will rise substantially if humans don’t reduce the amount of greenhouse being released into the atmosphere. The study, prepared by researchers at Rutgers University, says seas could rise from 2000 levels by up to 1.1 feet by 2030, 2.1 feet by 2050, and 6.3 feet by 2100. Garden State officials are using the report to guide them as they decide how to meet the challenges posed by sea level rise flooding.

“New Jersey has much to lose if we do not act quickly and decisively to adapt to the realities of climate change,” DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said in a news release. “This study illustrates the sobering reality that our coastal landscape will change drastically, and we must act with urgency to ensure the long-term viability of our coastal and waterfront communities. These projections now serve as important baselines for developing policy directions, including changes to land use regulation, that New Jersey must adopt to address these challenges.”

You can read more about the Rising Seas and Changing Storms study here.