Environment: Shrinking Shores

Overdevelopment, poor planning and nature take their toll

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While the oceans are rising, some coastal land is actually sinking. Much of the East Coast, for example, is made up of silt sediments deposited from rivers, bays and inlets over the past 5,000 to 8,000 years. As the sediments gradually compress under their own weight, the surface sinks lower. On the Gulf Coast, a process called subsidence, caused in part by the extraction of groundwater and petroleum from subterranean layers of sand and clay, has forced the land, already virtually at sea level, to drop 3 ft. a century. In all, the coastline of the northeastern U.S. may recede an average of 200 ft. in the next 50 years; in some parts of Florida, where the land is flatter, the sea might move in as much as 500 ft.

There is an additional complication on the West Coast. Periodically, a warm- water current in the Pacific shifts eastward in a pattern called El Nino, a Spanish eponym for the Christ Child, so called because it appears off South America around Christmastime. The result: higher sea levels, unusually high tides and severe winter storms along the western coast of the Americas. During the most recent major occurrence of El Nino, in the early 1980s, sea levels along the California coast rose an average of 5 in. With the added tides and storms, the effects were catastrophic. Thomas Terich, a professor of geography at Western Washington University, warns that even a slight permanent rise in the average sea level could wreak worse havoc. Says he: "The sites with the highest value -- the sandspits and low beachfront -- are going to be severely threatened."

For all the danger, people still want to own seafront property. And why not? They are still protected -- and encouraged -- by knowing that they can write off storm damage on their taxes.* In many cases, they can depend on federal flood insurance for at least partial reimbursement in case of disaster. Environmentalists believe the insurance program actually encourages building in high-risk locales. Says Town Councilman Neil Wright, of Surfside Beach, S.C.: "It's an incentive to build in dangerous places. The feds need to change the rules."

Federal flood insurance has traditionally reimbursed owners for rebuilding, rather than for relocating houses to safer ground. The owners of the Sea Vista Motel on Topsail Island, N.C., whose property was damaged in 1985 by Hurricane < Gloria, wanted to move inland, but their federal insurance would not cover the $150,000 cost. It would, however, pay $220,000 for repairs and renovations. The motel stayed put. Then came last winter's New Year's storm, which tore out all 15 of the first-floor units. Says Manager Frances Ricks: "There's a feeling we can't win."

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