Just as Hurricane Gilbert was gathering power down in the Caribbean last month, a University of Virginia expert was warning that it is only a matter of time before a killer hurricane devastates a populous U.S. coastal area. And the danger will grow worse so long as official governmental policies encourage development in coastal regions, said Timothy Beatley, an urban planner at Virginia.
Gilbert veered to the south and west, missing the Texas and Louisiana coast with the brunt of its force. But news photos of auto-jammed routes out of Texas coast cities supported Beatley’s thesis. The more the coastline is developed, the more difficult it will become for residents to evacuate in the event of a major storm.
Hurricane deaths have declined in recent years because of improved weather forecasting, but property damage has risen dramatically. And deaths could increase again as coastal growth continues, said Beatley, co-author of a forthcoming study on the dangers of catastrophic storms. About three-fourths of those who live in hurricane-prone areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have moved there since the last direct hit by a major hurricane, Beatley said.
Beatley proposed that the federal government establish a set of storm-hazard mitigation standards that state and local governments would use in local land-use planning. Those guidelines would specify how much, if any, development should be allowed in high-hazard areas. The standards also would provide for conservation of natural systems such as wetlands and dunes that help protect populated areas against storms.
Beatley also recommended the phase-out of federal assistance to development in vulnerable areas. Congress already has moved in this direction by discouraging development on barrier islands and similar natural areas. Federal law now disqualifies such developments from getting federally subsidized flood insurance and aid for facilities such as connecting bridges and highways.
So far, however, such restrictions apply only to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and not to the Great Lakes or the Pacific, even though the Department of the Interior has said they qualify for inclusion. The Pacific shore has fewer dunes, spits and other natural features, but they are no less vulnerable to the pounding of the region’s massive winter storms. Congress should correct this oversight as soon as possible.