Lewes and Bethany Beach, Delaware
June 7-9, 2013
When Arthur and Roberta Leib returned to Bethany Beach, Delaware after the Great March Storm of 1962, instead of finding their army-surplus house in its usual grassy lot off 5th Street, they encountered it surfing among the downed utility wires at the intersection of 5th and Pennsylvania. Fortunately, they were able to retrieve the house and move it back to “higher ground,” which according to their son, Jeff Leib, consisted of the foot or two of sand that had blown into the lot with the Nor’easter winds. Thanks to this recovery, we were able to enjoy a few days at the beach in the quaint, blue house with an adventurous spirit. Of course, not every house was so lucky.
History (almost) repeats itself
Just over 50 years later, on October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, devastating many homes along the Atlantic Shore, but fortunately sparing Bethany Beach and the surrounding towns the brunt of the impact. Leib said that Bethany may have gotten off easy with Sandy because of a recent beach replenishment project that, in 2011, pumped 930,000 cubic yards of fortifying sand onto the beach that sits one block away from his house. This time around, the little blue house stayed firmly put on its foundation.
“We all count our blessings here. We know how lucky we are,” Garland Williams, a realtor at the Lewes Sotheby’s Realty Office, told us.
Still, Delaware’s beaches and infrastructure suffered some damage from the Superstorm. Lewes experienced near-record flooding due to the unlucky confluence of a full moon, high tide, and Northeasterly winds. Following storm damage to the beaches, up to $30 million in Hurricane Sandy Relief Funds were allocated to Lewes and other Delaware beach towns to replenish the beaches. However, as Leib points out, beach replenishment is inherently a short-term fix, and dependent on funding.
Let’s make a (hazard mitigation & climate adaptation) plan
Given the history of storm surges in the area, the Town of Lewes has been thinking about how to mitigate against flood hazards for a while. But more recently, in 2011, Lewes became the first town in the U.S. to develop a hazard mitigation plan that integrates planning for the expected impacts of climate change.
“The town appreciates the importance of planning ahead,” Wendy Carey, a Coastal Hazards Specialist with Delaware Sea Grant and a 35-year Lewes resident, explained. “Flooding is not a problem that is going to go away.”
In fact, flooding in Lewes and the surrounding area will probably get worse. The Plan reviewed existing studies that predict sea levels in Delaware will rise between 1.3 feet and 5.6 feet by 2100, depending on the level of global carbon dioxide emissions. More frequent and intense coastal storms are also expected with climate change, both because warmer air holds more water (which eventually becomes precipitation) and because the extra energy pent up in the oceans is often unleashed in spurts (storms). These factors will only exacerbate destructive flooding in the region.
The Plan lays out six recommendations selected by stakeholders in a series of workshops. Since its release in 2011, the Hazard Mitigation Planning Team, a group of town officials charged with implementation, has focused primarily on education and outreach.
“Implementation is the hardest part,” said Carey. “We’ve had to identify the lowest hanging fruit to pick first, and for us, that’s education and outreach.”
As part of this outreach, the group has started thinking about how to improve Lewes’ community rating system (CRS) participation with FEMA. Towns with flood mitigation plans receive a CRS class rank between 1 and 10—the lower the rank, the bigger the flood insurance rate discount, up to 45 percent. By conducting specific activities—such as public outreach, improving mapping and regulations, and preparing for floods—towns can improve their discount rates. Of the 1,211 communities in the CRS program, only a handful have moved beyond the education incentives to the ‘higher hanging fruit’ that would lower their rating. Roseville, California is the only participant in the program rated ‘Class 1.’
However, with FEMA flood insurance costs on the rise, there may be more interest in taking the agency up on more of the CRS program incentives to reduce rates. If passed, proposed language to change Lewes building codes to require three to four feet of freeboard on new buildings (meaning that new construction would have to be raised three to four feet above the floodplain) would contribute to improving the Town’s CRS class.
So far, though, flood insurance rates have not deterred prospective homebuyers on the Delaware shore: “As a realtor, [sea level rise and flooding are] just starting to have some impact on some of our prospective buyers” Williams explained. “I think as we go forward, there will be more and more pressure on realtors to disclose info [about projected sea level rise].”
As for the little blue house on 5th Street in Bethany Beach, the future may hold some more adventures.
To view more photos click here.