The geography of risk: epic storms, rising seas, and the cost of America’s coasts

By Gilbert M. Gaul

The geography of risk: epic storms, rising seas, and the cost of America's coasts by Gilbert M. Gaul
Added November 12, 2019

The costliest hurricanes in U.S. history have all occurred in the past two decades--but who bears the financial brunt of these monster storms? It is no accident that five of the most destructive hurricanes in the last hundred years have made landfall since 2005: Katrina ($161 billion), Ike ($40 billion), Sandy ($71 billion), Harvey ($125 billion), and Maria ($90 billion). And with more property than ever in harm's way, the seas rising, and the planet and its oceans warming dangerously, it won't be long before we see a $250 billion storm. Why? Because Americans have built $3 trillion worth of property in some of the riskiest places on earth: barrier islands and coastal floodplains prone to hurricanes and epic floods. And they have been encouraged to do so by what Gilbert M. Gaul reveals in The Geography of Risk to be a confounding array of federal subsidies, tax breaks, low-interest loans, disaster recovery grants, and government flood insurance programs that shift risk at the beach from private investors to public taxpayers, radically distorting common notions of risk and responsibility. Consider: In 1955, taxpayers covered just 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding after hurricanes. They now pay for 70 percent--sometimes more. These federal incentives, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gaul argues, have resulted in one of the worst planning failures in American history, with the cost to taxpayers now reaching unsustainable levels. In prose that is at once deeply informed, clear, and entertaining, Gaul explores the history of the modern coast and how, over time, federal taxpayers far from the shoreline have become responsible for a shocking collection of coastal amenities and infrastructure: new roads, bridges, utilities, and streetlights; tennis courts, marinas, and gazebos; food, cars--even paying billions to widen the beaches of hedge fund owners. The Geography of Risk will forever change the way you think about the coasts, from the clash between economic interests and nature to the heated politics of regulators and developers. —Summary from book dust jacket

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