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Sea Level Rise: A Bipartisan Problem That's Not Making Waves in the N.H. Primary

Ron Sher; PREP King Tide Photo Contest

Thirty-five mayors and other local elected officials from coastal communities all over the country gathered in New Hampshire this weekend to talk about Sea Level Rise. They came from both parties, and they didn’t wind up in the state that hosts the nation’s first primary by accident. 

Basically anywhere with a coast was represented.

From the South - like Pass Christian, Mississippi - which Mayor Chipper McDermott described as “a 316-year-old town that on August 29th, 2005 went from the 21st century to the 18th century in nine short hours with the mother of all storms, Katrina.”

From California, from Florida, and from the east coast, such as Newburyport and Plum Island, where Mayor Donna Holaday says “every time there’s a storm coming every news channel is arriving on the island to try to capture the next house that will fall into the Atlantic Ocean.”  

In coastal communities across the country rising seas are a problem across party lines – there were actually more Republicans at this gathering than Democrats.

Though in some districts, in the interest of moving policy forward, some Republicans find its best to avoid terms like sea level rise and stick to “nuisance flooding”. 

“People’s lives and property continue to get damaged, things have to get repaired, but it’s just a small nuisance,” observed Roy Wright, facetiously, “It’s not like sweeping the kitchen floor.” 

First in the Nation

These officials descended on Hampton Beach in New Hampshire for two reasons. 

It’s symbolic of a place at risk from sea level rise. Right out the front door of the conference center is a commercial strip just a few hundred feet from the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

“You know I often say, and sometimes people don’t like to hear this but we shouldn’t be here. I myself am guilty because I live up the road two miles up the road right on the beach,” notes Hampton Selectman Jim Waddell, a Republican. A recent study estimated sea level rise threatens at least $400 million dollars’ worth of property in this town alone.

“This should be natural land it would mitigate flooding much more. So we’ve created we created a lot of our own problems along the whole coast,” Waddell said.

But with only 18 miles of coast, New Hampshire is not exactly the poster child for states struggling with sea level rise.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which organized this gathering, likely chose the Granite State for another reason, its prominence in selecting future presidents.

“Every presidential candidate should be looking at this issue, we’re talking about 123 million people. We’re talking about half of our country’s GDP. I mean, its economics,” Thundered Dawn Zimmer, Mayor of Hoboken New Jersey, during a press conference called in the middle of the gathering.

She’s a Democrat who has become something of a rock-star in climate change adaptation circles. Zimmer says the way FEMA recovery funds are given out doesn’t allow cities to plan for the future. Those dollars may be spent on elevating or protecting individual buildings, but not on protecting whole neighborhoods.

“The policies need to change at the federal level to support taking a comprehensive approach, to support protecting our communities,” she said.

Shifting Towards Comprehensive Solutions

Zimmer would like to see federal dollars support projects similar to hers, in Hoboken. After Hurricane Sandy flooded 80 percent of the city in 2012, Hoboken got $230 million dollars through a design competition to start building sea-walls, green space, micro-grids… all the buzzwords. 

This comprehensive approach is what they are looking for down in refinery country, too.

“Hurricane Ike was devastating to us. It took us three years just to start to recover from that, and we’re still not fully recovered today from it,” said Glenn Royal is mayor of Seabrook Texas near Houston. 

The communities around Galveston Bay have been working with Dutch engineers and universities to design a massive complex of seawalls, they’ve dubbed the Ike Dike. It would cost $7.5 billion dollars. But a Texas A and M University study predicted that a worst case scenario hurricane could cost as much as $46 billion dollars in storm damage.

“So you can pay me now or pay me later. Pay me a lot less today than later,” he said.

While sea level rise is a top issue for both parties in the communities affected, it doesn’t seem to have the same traction on the campaign trail. The conference invited all of the presidential candidates to attend. None took up the offer.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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