A video of a North Carolina beach house being dismembered by a voracious ocean was a viral hit this spring. But it won’t be long before the novelty wears off. As sea level rises and storm surges grow more intense, beach towns on every coast of the United States will soon be sacrificing more real estate to Poseidon. A 2018 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that more than 300,000 coastal homes, currently worth well over $100 billion, are at risk of “chronic inundation” by 2045.
The matter of large swaths of deluxe real estate erected in harm’s way is not new. But as extreme weather events compound, the obvious perils of waterfront living are growing both more obvious and more perilous. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cited 20 different “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters” in 2021. The analytics firm CoreLogic counts more than 7.5 million homes with “direct or indirect coastal exposure and subsequent risk from coastal storm surge and damage from hurricanes.”
In the past half-century, American beach towns shucked the bohemians and the beachcombers, the drifters and the sun worshipers. The family that was once affluent enough to own a seaside cottage has grown up, grown very rich and moved into a turreted fantasy with commodified sea views. A few years ago, I asked an old-timer at the Jersey Shore why her town was bursting with people but the beach was strangely uncrowded. She told me that the new rich spend much less time by the water’s edge. “It’s all about the houses,” she said.
Indeed, it is. Barrier islands in Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey are situated a few feet above sea level. In many places, including the Jersey Shore and the Texas Gulf Coast, the land is simultaneously sinking as the water rises. Sanibel Island in Florida, a multi-billion-dollar habitat for retired C.E.O.s, may be in its final decades before the Gulf of Mexico permanently moves in. The fabulous town of East Hampton on Long Island issued a report in April warning that on its current trajectory, the town will evolve into “a series of islands” over the next half-century. California beach towns from Del Mar in the south to Stinson Beach in the north are reckoning with an ocean poised to submerge them.
Beach towns have long kept their beaches plump by dredging sand offshore and pumping it onto eroded shorelines. Some $7 billion worth of beach replenishment programs, most under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have added sand and bolstered property values in some of the most exclusive havens in the United States. Federal taxpayers typically pick up two-thirds of the tab.
Beach towns on the Pacific and Gulf coasts have spent millions tapping offshore reserves, but the Eastern Seaboard has been the prime beneficiary of dredging. The Army corps has been engineering beaches in Cape May, New Jersey, for a century. Palm Beach County, in Florida, has had its beaches replenished more than 70 times. Many beach towns receive publicly financed sand and then turn around and charge the public to sit on it.
Yet even the most highly subsidized towns can’t replenish a beach that’s underwater. In a land where the wealthy have succeeded in privatizing accretion and socializing erosion, what will happen when rising sea levels, combined with more violent storm surges, overwhelm beach real estate? As the water rises, private insurance is poised to grow increasingly elusive. Federal flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is capped at $250,000 for homes, not even one-tenth of the value of many houses in beach communities. With the federal insurance program billions in debt, FEMA is ready to abandon the most high-risk properties — if only Congress would let it.
Environmentalists and scientists have long called for “managed retreat” from shrinking coasts. But in politically fractured America, who could possibly “manage” such a retreat, and who would pay for it?
In New Zealand, an analysis of coastal erosion along Hawke’s Bay, an area known for both beaches and vineyards, estimates that a gradual “planned retreat” of fewer than 1,000 properties over the rest of this century would cost more than $1 billion (or two billion NZD). The consultants who produced the analysis wisely ducked the question of who would come up with that sum.
If you’ve paid attention to American politics, however, you might have some clues about who will likely end up holding the bag here. Consider the Army Corps of Engineers proposal for Galveston Bay in Texas. Sea rise and aggressive surge threaten oil, gas and petrochemical facilities around Houston, which in turn threaten the entire region with toxins in the event of a major storm. So the Army corps has proposed a massive barrier across Galveston Bay along with other coastal fortifications. Two-thirds of the total cost, currently projected at more than $30 billion, would be borne by federal taxpayers, with about a third covered by state and local taxpayers. The oil and gas industry, the folks who helped supercharge the seas while flashing some truly impressive profits along the way, would owe nothing.
You can readily apply this model to the beach. The sea’s coming rampages will no doubt be portrayed as acts of God. Aside from a half-century of increasingly frantic cries from climate scientists, there will have been practically no warning. (In Virginia Beach, where the evangelical businessman Pat Robertson built his empire, God’s wrath will no doubt be attributed to the sinfulness of political opponents rather than the depredations of carbon.) With their beachfront estates under assault, our nation’s soggy millionaires will seek relief. Which politicians, many of whom use their donors’ elegant summer homes as fund-raising venues, will deny them?
The lords of the beachfront were late to the coastal real estate game. The beach was initially deemed the most useless, undesirable space on the North American continent. (Imagine rushing past the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard in your haste to stake a land claim in Ohio.)
The wealthy eventually realized their error. They put property markers on perpetually shifting sand, built expensive homes and called in the army to keep their beaches from drifting away. It’s hard to see how, exactly, they will hold onto much of this sea-level paradise in the face of rising waters and carbon-charged super storms. But it’s not hard to guess who will end up covering their losses.
Francis Wilkinson is a columnist at Bloomberg. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.