The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 10, 2012

Sandy blows open talk for people to leave the coast

The Back Porch column

By Nerissa Young


It’s time to have an uncomfortable and unpopular discussion.

Hurricane Sandy’s horrific destruction of the eastern seaboard forces a dialogue on not how often, but whether, the American people should continue to pay to rebuild beachfront homes. Reports put the damage at $50 billion, which is probably conservative.

For those who lost a vacation home, it’s difficult. For those who lost a permanent home, it’s a life changer.

This is not a matter of compassion but economics. Certainly those affected need help now, but the help should not be to rebuild on the same spot. Americans must face the reality that, despite their wishes, nature will not bend to them every time.

People who live in a hurricane’s path should reasonably expect to get hit by one.

Trying to construct levees and dikes along the 3,000 miles of the nation’s entire eastern border is an astronomical expense and an unwieldy task.

It’s time to move inland. The thought of abandoning a piece of land where generations of the same family have lived is traumatic. My family knows that feeling.

Several generations of the Young family had farmed and lived on New River when the U.S. government decided to construct Bluestone Dam. Many communities ceased to exist because residents were forced to leave their deliberately flooded river homes so residents farther upriver could enjoy theirs.

Climate change had nothing to do with that, and it really has nothing to do with this. This is a matter of the wise use of resources.

Folks in the Greenbrier River watershed suffered two, 100-year floods in a decade in 1985 and 1996. One was caused by rain and the other by rain and rapid snow melt.

After the 1996 flood, someone said in my presence that the people who live along the river should move out. That comment irked me because it came from someone who had the wherewithal to live anywhere in the county he wanted.

One area of Summers County affected was Fox Run Road. I went down there and interviewed people. Most were folks of little means living in meager housing because that was what was along the road. Many rented their homes. They were lucky to afford the flooded roof over their heads. They had few other places to go. For owners, it wasn’t the best patch of ground, but it was theirs.

After the 1996 flood — the flood of record for the lower Greenbrier River that cost $50.7 million* in FEMA aid only — the Summers County Commission aggressively pursued a flood ordinance and compliance to keep the floodplain free of new structures. Measures included grandfathering and elevation for those who wanted to stay and buyouts for those who wanted to leave.

One effect is it put the county in better standing to get federal aid from the government when another flood happens. Another is that it converted residential tracts into green space without structures, which will reduce the monetary losses the next time a flood roils through. And there will be a next time if time lasts.

I have come to see the wisdom of that person’s remark that people should move away from the water so that others don’t have to constantly — literally and figuratively — bail them out.

Is a New Yorker’s right to live on the water any more important or valuable than a hillbilly’s? No. That’s why both need to get off the water.

Doing so will allow America’s shorelines to return to a more native habitat that can better withstand nature’s onslaught while preserving green space for environmental and recreational use.

It makes sense in every way. It’s hard to leave home and resettle, but my family did it. So can others.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

* The 1996 Greenbrier River flood aid amount is from the West Virginia Flood Protection Plan drafted by the West Virginia Conservation Agency.