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Building Among Floods and Fires: Does Climate Change Mean a Retreat from the Mountains and the Sea?

Ilana Novick

Hurricane Sandy is the most recent storm to have shed light on the dangers of development in waterfront areas along the Eastern seaboard, but communities from Colorado to Missouri to South Dakota have also grappled for years with the growing risk of environmental damage from everything from rising rivers to forest fires -- dangers that are growing more acute thanks to climate change. In fact, much of the discussion around whether to continue waterfront development in the New York area echoes coverage in 2011 of the fires in Colorado’s forest-fire prone Red Zone, and even earlier, the Great Flood of 1993, when the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers rose.

Both episodes received extensive media coverage, including harrowing shots of entire towns underwater. Our collective memories of these disasters, however, appear to be very short, and development in natural disaster prone areas continues at a brisk pace.

Despite the devastation of the Great Flood of 1993, 28,000 homes had been built and more than 6,000 acres of commercial and industrial space developed, as of 2007, on land that was underwater in 1993. This development, concentrated in St. Louis but located on various floodplains, is worth an estimated $2.2 billion. Scientists were sounding the alarming about overdevelopment in 2007 and before, but state and city government continue to offer tax incentives for builders.