2004-09-10 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

This has been a busy summer in more ways than one. However, this column is back up and running.

I cannot comprehend why dunes were demolished along the beach in Rockaway Park. The natural, but “unofficial” dunes were put there by nature for a reason. Let’s examine the reasons why dunes are a very necessary protection for the Rockaway Peninsula.

Beach dunes are types of coastal landforms. They are valuable environmental, aesthetic, and recreational resources that are subject to natural processes as well as the effects of human activities. Beaches, dunes, barrier beaches, coastal banks, salt marshes and coastal floodplains are appreciated by the general public and regulated by government agencies to ensure protection of the beneficial functions of these landforms. Yet, in spite of these efforts, coastal landforms are vulnerable to human alterations, resulting in less stable landforms and lessening the value of these resources for future generations.

Beach dunes are the most important natural protection we have against the ocean. The dunes functionally serve to prevent the ocean from reaching property. Without the dunes, property would be subjected to frequent flooding and or total destruction. It is important to remember this and to protect the dunes. Local, State and Federal building codes have since been established to protect the dunes, which in turn protects lives and property. Our beach dunes are the only protection we have against the sea. Dunes won’t prevent flooding, but they will buy the affected home occupants a few minutes more to prepare for evacuation, thus saving lives.

If we look at Ocean City, Maryland, they are right on top with their shoreline protection. Their beach replenishment project is a vital part of protecting the shoreline for residents and visitors alike. It is estimated that the project has prevented more than $238 million dollars in storm-related damages since the project began in 1991.

Until FEMA’s flood insurance program became available in 1968, banks refused to grant mortgages for beachfront home construction. It was only after the federal government assumed the risk that private insurers were unwilling to take on that the coastal real-estate market boomed. FEMA’s original thinking was that their insurance would reduce individual risk while shifting the burden of hurricane disaster relief onto policy holders. They would guarantee a large insurance pool by making the rates so inexpensive that lots of people would buy the policies. This idea worked for a while, about as long as the historic lull in Atlantic hurricane activity of the 1970s and 1980s. As soon as Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, Opal, George, Fran, Floyd and their ilk started marching ashore, the program turned into a money loser and the largest financial exposure the federal government faced. That is until this year. FEMA will probably rethink their exposure to liability after the one-two punch Florida has received. Furthermore, a federally-backed flood insurance policy covers only damage to the insured structure. It does not cover damage to land caused by flood, wave or erosion. And, it does not cover damage from other events, such as hurricane-related winds. These same limitations may apply to privately underwritten insurance. When a structure is so badly damaged that it cannot be repaired or rebuilt, an owner may receive all benefits under the flood insurance policy and discover the coverage is inadequate to cover the cost of removing the structure and /or repaying the loan. In addition, the value of any remaining land may decline significantly if the land is “unbuildable”.

In Atlantic Beach, a condo development was built right on the beach, and if my memory serves me right, they may be at or below sea level. Imagine trying to buy homeowner’s insurance for that development! Then there was a compromise made – dunes were built to given the condos a buffer and make the development insurable.

So, if any insurance underwriters wrote a homeowner’s policy based on the presence of dunes providing any sort of protection – and those dunes are now gone, will they still insure you?

Remember folks, we are still battling the loss of marshlands in the bay – an early predictor in my books of the rising sea levels.

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