Homes Are Being Built the Fastest in Many Flood-Prone Areas, Study Finds


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In many coastal states, flood-prone areas have seen the highest rates of home construction since 2010, a study found, suggesting that the risks of climate change have yet to fundamentally change people’s behavior.

The study, by Climate Central, a New Jersey research group, looked at the 10-year flood risk zone — the area with a 10 percent chance of flooding in any given year — and estimated the zone’s size in 2050. Then the group counted up homes built there since 2010, using data from Zillow, a real estate company.

For eight states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Mississippi and South Carolina, the percentage increase in homes built in the flood zone exceeded the rate of increase in the rest of the state.

There are many reasons construction persists despite the danger. In some cases it’s urban sprawl, in others it’s a desire among government officials for property-tax revenues. But whatever the reason, this kind of building activity will “come back and bite,” said Benjamin Strauss, president and chief scientist of Climate Central, which produces and publishes research on the effects of global warming.

The researchers’ objective was to examine “the riskiest of the risky places” — those that “actually would predictably flood multiple times in the course of one mortgage,” Mr. Strauss said. “Even in a time of growing climate change awareness, lots of towns are building fastest in the riskiest places.”

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that rising temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of coastal flooding caused by hurricanes, storm surges, heavy rain and tidal floods. At the same time there is the long-term threat of rising seas pushing the high-tide line inexorably inland.

“America’s trillion-dollar coastal property market and public infrastructure are threatened,” said a report last fall from 13 federal agencies. “Many individuals and communities will suffer financial impacts as chronic high tide flooding leads to higher costs and lower property values.”

The data used for the study is limited in that it relies on what counties classify as new construction. For example, in some cases a county may identify as newly built an existing home that has in fact only been elevated, according to Peter Girard, a spokesman for Climate Central. But that is likely to account for a small share of homes in the report, he said.

Building in the very areas that will predictably flood creates two problems, according to Larry Larson, senior policy adviser with the Association of State Floodplain Managers. The first is financial: As flooding eventually exceeds what the houses were built to withstand, homeowners will face rising insurance costs.

“Their flood-insurance premiums are going to skyrocket,” Mr. Larson said. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

The second problem is safety, both for residents and emergency workers. “If that water rises, they’re going to have to send rescuers in there to get them out,” Mr. Larson said.

Beyond the seemingly universal appeal of waterfront living, the continued coastal construction reflects a variety of local factors, according to state and city officials, as well as home builders.

In Mississippi, where homes went up in high-risk areas at more than twice the rate as in the rest of the state, the construction reflects the passage of time after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to David Saulters, president of the Home Builders Association of Mississippi. “In 2006, 2007, you can’t get anyone to build there. The pain is too strong,” Mr. Saulters said of the state’s coast. The housing crash and economic downturn that started in 2008 further slowed that recovery, he said, decreasing demand for homes.

But since then, the economy has recovered. Over the same period, people’s memories of Katrina have ebbed, replaced by the enduring appeal of being by the water.

“Living in that coastal environment, and that lifestyle, outweigh the possibility of that major storm,” Mr. Saulters said. “That pain begins to fade.”

In Galveston, Tex., which has the third-highest number of homes built in the high-risk zone of anywhere in the country since 2010, the explanation is a little different, according to local officials. Yes, people like living by the water. But in this part of the country, they’re also responding to urban sprawl.

“The whole of the Houston metro area has, and continues to be, growing,” said Tim Tietjens, executive director of development services for Galveston, which is 50 miles from the center of Houston.

So in Galveston, unlike in the Northeast, builders are erecting houses on lots in the island’s West End where they’ve never existed before. Those houses are becoming second homes to people in Houston and other parts of the state.



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