Durham County

Dream of owning a beach house one day? Duke experts warn it could become a nightmare

Drone captures flooding in Bonita Springs

Watch aerial footage of flooding in Bonita Springs, FL., following Hurricane Irma.
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Watch aerial footage of flooding in Bonita Springs, FL., following Hurricane Irma.

As warmer seas trigger stronger hurricanes in coming decades, governments in the U.S. will face a dilemma: Spend more money helping communities prepare or recover from storms, or take the political risk of asking coastal dwellers to shoulder more of the financial risk of living there.

So say experts from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, particularly Orrin Pilkey, an emeritus professor who has made a career of studying beach erosion and who believes the federal government should let premiums for flood insurance rise in accordance with the actual risk of future flooding along the coasts.

Pilkey acknowledged that such a move would be “very painful,” as rates would “triple and a lot of people couldn’t afford it.” Real estate prices in coastal communities would fall accordingly, and many who live there now would wind up having to move.

He suspects it’s more likely that state and national governments will respond by building sea walls to protect the pricier buildings and developments and by trucking in sand to “nourish” or replenish beaches that wave action would normally wash away.

Should sea levels rise as much as climatologists think they will, the bills for that protection will come due at about the same time “up and down the coast,” Pilkey said.

But when it comes to sizing up the political dynamic, “Orrin is optimistic,” said Betsy Albright, another Nicholas School professor. “My research is much more pessimistic.”

Albright has studied how people in communities in South Carolina and Colorado have responded to experiencing a flood. And that work has underscored that wishful thinking enters the equation.

People who’ve had homes and other property damaged by floods often have “a much lower perception of future risk than ones who did not,” she said.

They reason? “I experienced this flood, we’re done, it’s not going to happen again for a long time,” Albright said.

Albright and Pilkey joined Susan Lozier, another Nicholas School professor, at a recent media question-and-answer session university publicists started organizing after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area.

Two subsequent storms, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, made the discussion even more timely, campus spokesman Keith Lawrence said.

From the Caribbean to the U.S.: Hurricane Irma's destructive path SUMMARY: Hurricane Irma battered the Caribbean islands and southern Florida before moving up the Gulf Coast. Retrace the destructive path of one of the most powerful hurricanes ever

Irma lashed Florida, and Maria is predicted to make its way northward, well offshore of the East Coast but close enough that it’s likely to send higher than normal waves ashore along the coast of North Carolina starting this weekend.

All three professors take the reality of global warming as a given, along with the physics that dictate that warmer seas will translate into stronger hurricanes.

Computer models “tell us we don’t expect a change in the frequency of these hurricanes,” said Lozier, a specialist in large-scale ocean currents. “It’s really the intensity that we expect to change as we move along.”

She stressed that it’s not really possible to link Harvey, Irma and Maria to climate change, in part because there’s not a lot of hard data to work before the advent of satellite technology changed how scientists study tropical storms.

But devastating as it was, Harvey “really isn’t a strong outlier in terms of the amount of rain” it produced, Lozier said, adding that the Houston area took the hit it did because the hurricane stalled, half over land and half over water. That allowed it to keep on picking up moisture and energy from the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was sitting there being rejuvenated,” she said.

Pilkey’s work on beach erosion has made him a critic of the practice of using jetties and sea walls to try controlling wave action. Like other scientists, he reckons the changes that such projects induce in coastal currents actually wind up speeding erosion. Of late, he’s been warning that the construction of large buildings close to beaches is creating a political constituency that’s likely to support more such installations, particularly as sea levels rise.

“Moving or demolishing a beach cottage is relatively easy to do,” he said. “Moving or demolishing a high rise, practically speaking, is impossible.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg