U.S. Coastal Structures Threatened

Tuesday, June 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — One-fourth of the buildings within 500 feet of the nation's coastlines are threatened by erosion in the next 60 years.

A study released Tuesday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency concluded that close to 87,000 homes and other buildings stand on land likely to wash away into the oceans or the Great Lakes.

``The findings are sobering,'' FEMA Director James Lee Witt said in a statement. ``If coastal development continues unabated, and if the sea levels rise as some scientists are predicting, the impact will be even worse.''

Costs of erosion damage to the owners of homes and other buildings are expected to average more than half a billion dollars per year, with the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts the most threatened. Flood insurance does not cover damage caused by gradual erosion.

Climatologists report that the nation appears to be entering a period of increased hurricane activity. The additional storms can be expected to increase the coastal erosion threat.

In many areas, improved construction and raising homes on posts has improved the ability to survive storms, creating an unexpected result after storms that cause severe erosion, said William Seitz of Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Now, houses that would simply have tumbled in the past remain standing, but out in the water, he said. They have to be condemned anyway because their septic systems can no longer function.

Outside of storms, erosion is often a gradual process, but it can be relentless. Its impact is easily illustrated by the problem of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was 1,500 feet from the shore when erected in 1870. By 1987 the lighthouse was in danger of falling victim to erosion. Finally, last year, the National Park Service moved it back 2,900 feet at a cost of $9.8 million.

The cost of moving homes can be beyond the means of most people.

The FEMA study was ordered by Congress during a debate over how best to manage coastal erosion, currently handled piecemeal by a mix of federal, state and local agencies.

``It is now time to renew public dialogue about how we can lower the risks to life and property and reduce the costs from the inevitable consequences of coastal erosion,'' Witt said.

The study was conducted by the John H. Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, a Washington research organization.

It estimated that 338,000 structures are within 500 feet of the coasts in the 48 contiguous states and Hawaii. It did not include Alaska or such large coastal cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, which it said are heavily protected against erosion.

Of 86,600 structures estimated to be threatened by erosion in the next 60 years, 53,000 are on the Atlantic Coast, 16,000 on the Great Lakes, 13,000 along the Gulf of Mexico and 4,600 on the Pacific Coast.

Rates of erosion vary greatly from place to place, with some of the highest in parts of the Gulf of Mexico at six feet a year.

A major storm can erode the coastline 100 feet in one day, the report noted, though much of that loss may be restored over the following years.

The cost of lost and damaged property because of erosion was estimated at $530 million per year for property owners alone. In addition it estimated costs of $410 million annually to communities for loss of land and structures.

Federal flood insurance, for damage caused by floods and storms, would pay about $80 million of this total at current enrollment rates, the study said. Even at 100 percent enrollment the insurance would cover only about $200 million of the costs.

The study recommended that Congress direct FEMA to develop erosion hazard maps for coastal areas and to include the cost of expected erosion losses when setting flood insurance rates in coastal areas.

It also suggested several other options for dealing with the threat, including:

—Establish Coastal High Hazard Zones that include both flood and erosion risks.

—Impose mandatory surcharges on flood insurance in these zones to add coverage for erosion.

—Impose regulatory measures such as requiring building setbacks to reduce potential damage.

—Require communities to impose building standards that take into account future flood potential because of erosion.

—Provide erosion insurance for bluff areas.

—Provide relocation help or buyouts.