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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Must get our heads out of the sand

Dirt is removed from the over wash of

Dirt is removed from the over wash of Dune Road near the Shinnecock Commercial Fishing Dock, on Monday in Hampton Bays. Credit: Southampton Town

Two local news items last week merit more attention.

Item No. 1: Southampton Town declares its fourth state of emergency in six weeks for Dune Road after yet another breach of the dune that protects the vulnerable roadway.

Item No. 2: The Hempstead Town board asks Congress to keep premiums affordable for homeowners in flood-prone areas who are insured by the National Flood Insurance Program, as the federal government prepares new, more realistic risk ratings.

That's two more pieces of evidence of the costly consequences of our inability to grasp the reality of rising seas.

Dune Road is a parable about building infrastructure on high-risk land, though admittedly the risks are greater now than when the road was constructed. Southampton spent $1 million just two years ago to elevate the road, and continues to spend millions more to pump sand to fortify and refortify the dunes, an endless folly town officials acknowledge cannot be sustained much longer.

Hempstead's board is a parable about sticking one's head in the sand, leaving one unable to see what's really going on. The board has company, like Sen. Chuck Schumer, and its motive is understandable — to protect coastal homeowners from big spikes in insurance costs that could force some to move. But that ignores two truths: Homeowners should pay insurance premiums commensurate with the risk of living where they do. And when they don't, someone else picks up the tab. For homeowners in the federal program who've been paying less than what they'd be charged in an open market, it has been other federal taxpayers who don't live in high-risk areas who foot more of the bill for damages.

As a society, we have to make better, sometimes more painful, decisions as risks grow. Sea level has risen four inches in less than 20 years in Montauk. Projections for Long Island range from 2 to 10 inches of rise in the next decade, and up to 6 feet by 2100.

Some good things are happening. A new law in Suffolk requires the county department of public works to take sea level rise into account when planning major roadwork. Smart, especially when compared to President Donald Trump rescinding an Obama-era order that forced the federal government to consider the effects of climate change and sea level rise on infrastructure projects. New state legislation from Assemb. Fred Thiele and State Sen. Monica Martinez will let municipalities keep high-risk land undeveloped by transferring development rights from those properties to areas where higher-density development is more appropriate. Brookhaven Town has bought some flood-prone properties, demolished houses there, and returned them to nature.

But there's much more to do. Virginia Beach is saying no to developers looking to build in flood-prone areas. Arkansas offers a tax credit to landowners who restore, enhance, or create flood-buffering wetlands on their properties. Maryland fights erosion by offering loans to homeowners who use native vegetation and the like to create stable "living shorelines."

You don't have to believe in climate change to embrace these kinds of projects. Most of the deniers I hear from are conservative in their philosophies. They, more than anyone, should deplore the taxpayer money wasted fixing the same thing over and over, especially when we know that every dollar spent on improving disaster resilience saves $6 in storm recovery costs, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences. Conservatives also are big proponents of personal responsibility, and rightly so. Which means homeowners should bear their own insurance costs, not foist part of that onto someone else. 

The threat, like the seas, keeps rising. So will the costs. 

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.