Homeowners down the shore stand to lose millions from sea level rise

Knowledge of sea level rise has not stopped building in vulnerable areas along the New Jersey and Delaware coasts.

People carry a cooler while strolling at the boardwalk on their way to a beach spot at the New Jersey shore, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Seaside Heights, N.J. (Julio Cortez / AP Photo)

People carry a cooler while strolling at the boardwalk on their way to a beach spot at the New Jersey shore, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Seaside Heights, N.J. (Julio Cortez / AP Photo)

Despite greater attention to the risks of sea level rise, housing construction in the most vulnerable areas of the country is growing more quickly than in safer, drier locations, according to a new report by the research organization Climate Central and the real estate website Zillow.

New Jersey and Delaware beach towns top the list where the expensive houses are going up in areas where scientists know flooding will be common, rather than rare. Homeowners in those communities stand to lose millions of dollars from future sea level rise.

Researchers looked at areas of the country with the risk of regular flooding, defined as at least one flood a year, by 2050.

Communities along the New Jersey and Delaware coastline have the most to lose, according to the report. Five of the top 10 towns nationwide with the largest growth rate in housing built since 2009 at risk of regular floods are at the Jersey Shore. And the top 10 counties include three along the Jersey coast – Ocean, Cape May and Atlantic counties. Delaware’s Sussex County is also in the top 10.

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Ben Strauss, chief scientist at Climate Central, said he wasn’t surprised by the assessment, but he is disappointed that so many people are building in areas that climate change scientists say will be under water or at regular risk of flooding.

“This is where rubber hits the road, where development is happening,” said Strauss. “And right now we’re really digging a deeper hole.”

Much of the building occurred after Hurricane Sandy destroyed properties along the Jersey coast in 2012.

Ocean City, New Jersey, tops the list of towns nationwide with the largest number of homes built since 2009 in flood-risk areas. Ocean at the Door: New Homes and the Rising Sea reports Ocean City now has 309 newly constructed homes worth $401 million in flood-risk areas. Beach Haven West and North Beach Haven follow, with Avalon and Dover Beaches North also in the top 10. New Jersey leads in states nationwide with 2,682 new houses worth a total of $2.62 billion built since 2009 in high-risk areas.

Philadelphia, a city sitting along the tidal Delaware River, has paid a lot of attention to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Still, 5,736 newly constructed properties, together worth more than $100 million, are at risk of regular flooding by 2050.

“We’re still in very early stages of any kind of real response,” said Strauss. “Most places aren’t seriously acting yet. I doubt this has caught up with zoning rules or zoning boards in many places, if any at all.”

Climate scientists predict that increased rainfalls and stronger storms will cause greater storm surges along the coasts. Strauss said he hopes the information will spur more action at the state and local level.

The report looks at new coastal construction and projected flooding in 2050 if global emissions are cut in line with the targets of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It found, nationwide, that in coastal areas, about 10,000 homes built after 2009 will be at risk of flooding an average of once a year. The risk triples by 2100, and is even greater if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

Researchers used elevation data from NOAA, the updated sea level rise projections reported by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the height of current annual floods, as well as housing data from Zillow.

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