Not surprisingly, sea level report has its dissenters

August 20, 2013

The state’s Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee recently approved its final list of recommendations to help Delaware prepare for the ever-rising waters which threaten not only the Atlantic coast but Delaware and Inland Bays communities and on up to Wilmington.

This is a statewide issue. Eventually, it will affect all Delawareans, wherever they live.

A Friday News Journal story told of dissents to the final report by two groups who were part of the committee, the Positive Growth Alliance and Home Builders Association of Delaware.

The story had comments from both sides, but it was the comments from the two groups above that were highlighted first and, I suspect, will be the ones more likely to be remembered.

In his dissent, Rich Collins of the PGA said the report “could lead to actions in the near future that will have immense economic consequences. Yet it will not be known if those actions are truly necessary for decades.”

Howard Fortunato, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association, sounded an even gloomier note. He said the state’s approach could “stigmatize” our coastal areas.

Further, he said, “Unfortunately, since Delaware is utilizing planning for worst-case scenarios, rather than implementing an adaptive management approach to possible sea level rise, we feel the current path taken will lead to the destruction of the Delaware coast and its economy.”

Scientists who warn of climate change and sea level rise are often accused of being alarmists. Judging by Fortunato’s statement, I’d say those on the other side of the issue can hold their own.

Especially when the basis for those statements depends on “possible sea level rise.”

Here’s Fortunato’s ally in dissent, Rich Collins, speaking before Sussex County Council on May 7.

“Sea level rise is nothing new,” he said. “The Henlopen Lighthouse fell into the sea in 1926, Indian River bridge, 1926 … it’s a natural thing. We’ve always dealt with it before, and we’re going to have to deal with it in the future, because sea level rise is absolutely occurring. It’s an absolute fact.”

Collins said something else interesting that day. Talking about the most devastating storm ever to hit the coast, he asked, “Was the Storm of ‘62 expensive? Sure, when it happened.

“It destroyed most of the buildings that were impacted. But what happened after that? We reconstructed, built modern structures … and we have generated unbelievable economic activity.”

Collins is absolutely right about that. As far as it goes. The Cape Region has prospered mightily because of coastal development, even considering the recent economic downturn.

But he also hit on the very nub of the problem: We have not only rebuilt what was destroyed, we have built hundreds (thousands?) of new houses right on the bay and ocean coasts, and whole new communities inland, many of which - oddly enough - are considered more vulnerable to flooding than the beachfront properties.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, when many publications were blaming global warming as the reason for the enormous cost of the damages, a Nov. 12, 2012 article in the New York Observer offered a different take, with this headline: “Risk Experts Say It’s Not Climate Change, It’s Coastal Communities, Stupid.”

The article said, “When the Observer called the experts who build the sophisticated models that the insurance industry uses to assess risk, they told us that global warming wasn’t the first factor responsible for the damage caused by Sandy and other storms. Instead, it’s where we’ve built our homes.”

Karen Clark, described as the creator of the modern catastrophic modeling industry, was quoted saying, “The big elephant in the room is not climate change.

“It’s the increasing property values. We continue to build bigger, more expensive homes along the coast.”

That is exactly the situation we face here in the Cape Region. Will we be hit with another Storm of ’62?

Who knows? This is what we do know. The economic destruction wreaked by a similar nor’easter now would make the cost of the Storm of ’62 look puny by comparison. There’s just so much more at risk. (Don’t tell me about the better building codes now; I’m sure many of those destroyed homes in New Jersey and New York were built to modern standards.)

I don’t fault Collins and Fortunato for vigorously making their case, even for a little hyperbole. They’re just doing their job. Dissent is good.

But I will point out: If they’re wrong - and I think they are - it’s not their problem. They’re not going to pick up the tab in the event of a disaster. It’s going to be the state. In other words, taxpayers as a whole.

That’s why it’s incumbent upon the state to consider worst-case scenarios. With Superstorm Sandy - not yet a year ago - we had a worst-case situation develop just a short ferry ride across the bay. For the state to ignore such a colossal warning would be reckless and irresponsible.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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