Coastal flooding, amplified by sea level rise, is becoming more costly and dangerous for people, businesses and cities along America’s shorelines—and policy makers at all levels of government, as well as presidential candidates, need to prioritize responding to this issue.
That’s the message from nearly 40 bipartisan local elected officials who gathered for a summit in New Hampshire last weekend to discuss strategies for coping with increasingly severe coastal flooding and sea level rise.
Officials representing 18 of the country’s 23 coastal states—ranging from rural to urban areas—gathered for the Rising Tides Summit. Republicans and Democrats who had never met each found themselves in the proverbial “same boat” on the threats sea level rise and coastal flooding pose to their citizens, businesses and economies. “I thought Texas was going at it alone,” said Mayor Glenn Royal of Seabrook, TX. “It is good to understand that coastal mayors from across the country are all facing similar issues from rising tides.”
In addition to sharing first-hand accounts of impacts and concerns, officials also heard from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Navy Rear Admiral Jonathan White, and senior officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Their unified messages were clear:
Sea level rise and coastal flooding need not and should not be partisan issues—and presidential candidates need to pay attention. As Delegate Christopher Stolle of Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Va. succinctly put it, “The water that’s coming in your neighbor’s door does not care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.” Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, N.J. put an even finer point on it. “Every presidential candidate should be looking at this issue,” she said. “We’re talking about 123 million people [who live in coastal communities]. We’re talking about half of our country’s GDP – it’s economics.”
Sea level rise and coastal flooding is happening. “We have to move beyond the question ‘Is it real?’” said Mayor Donna Holaday of Newburyport, Mass. “It’s real. We’re dealing with it on an ongoing basis.” Stolle echoed in saying “It’s time we stop discussing what we need to do and start taking action to protect our local communities.”
Communities need more proactive assistance from the federal government. Local officials are first responders and have a significant role to play in building more resilient communities, but cannot and should not have to bear the cost alone. The frustration was palpable on this issue, as officials noted the huge sums of supplemental funding the government provides after disasters like Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina, but the paltry amount available for resiliency preparation. By providing resources to make communities more resilient today, we can reduce future damages while saving American taxpayers money.
Rising tides and unprecedented recurrent coastal flooding are serious economic threats to communities. Mayors of beach communities from Maine to Florida expressed serious concerns about their economies, which are dependent on their beaches bringing tourists. And these economic concerns aren’t limited to individual communities. “If a major storm hits, and as a result we have to shut down the Houston port and shipping channel, this is going to affect our nation’s GDP as our nation’s largest petrochemical complex is located there,” said Mayor Michel Bechtel of Morgan’s Point, TX. “ It is the number two exporting port for containers in the United States and one of the major economic ports in the country.”Officials also expressed fears of how increased flooding is impacting property values and insurance rates and will have an increasing effect in the future.
Sea level rise is a national security threat. Rear Admiral White provided facts about climate change, underscoring the military’s concern not only with the risks sea level rise poses to military bases and infrastructure, but with the geopolitical challenges arising from low-lying countries becoming uninhabitable due to rising seas. There are also sheer logistical issues. “It’s not just the infrastructure of our military bases that are at risk in these coastal areas,” said Stolle, who represents Hampton Roads, home to the world’s largest naval base. “It’s also the ability of our sailors, our marines, our soldiers and our airmen to get to those facilities to defend the nation.”
These local elected officials, who are front line responders to the impacts of rising seas, all have the same goals: protecting our coastlines, the economy and the communities that live there, as well as all of us who enjoy the nation’s beaches. Let’s hope their collective voice will break through the partisan bickering in Washington and on the campaign trail. It’s time we start seeing policies and politicians who prioritize addressing sea level rise and coastal flooding.