Subsidized insurance, beach and dune building projects, tax breaks for uninsured losses.

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Superstorm Sandy came ashore with wrath and left us with many lessons in its wake. Yet a year later, federal and state governments continue to make bad decisions and encourage risky rebuilding.

Surely, 117 deaths and nearly $50 billion in damage should have forced our government to change its behavior. Yet with subsidized insurance, federal beach and dune building projects and tax write-offs for uninsured losses, the government forges ahead without looking in the rear-view mirror. Given this massive public commitment to underwriting the risk of building in areas of known hazards, why would people ever move? The rest of us are taking all the risk.

Let's look at what has happened along the New Jersey and New York shorelines over the past year, decisions we will likely come to regret:

We have made a policy decision without any debate, discussion, or national plan. We will attempt to hold the nation's shorelines in place using whatever means possible and whatever the cost. We will do this despite the undisputed scientific fact the sea level is rising and coastal erosion will only increase in the future.

Yes, there has been much talk about building "better" and "smarter." President Obama's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force report released in August offered many good recommendations for increasing post-disaster efficiency, and using better science to understand flood risk. But, one sure-fire solution was glaringly absent — any suggestion that we should be developing long-term plans for getting infrastructure out of high-hazard areas.

Positive steps

Sure, there is much talk in the report about elevating structures and roads, and good suggestions about flood-proofing urban services such as the power grid. Many resort communities in New Jersey have taken the call to elevate homes seriously.

But elevating buildings above the hazard is only a temporary solution. It's like standing in a river that is rising due to flooding. You can roll up your pants, but if the water keeps rising, you will get wet.

Better to just step out of the water. Instead, post-Sandy, we have decided to roll up our pants, but the sea level will continue to rise and our shorelines will continue to erode at an ever-increasing rate.

Beach replenishment

Government, however, seems to think it can push a boulder uphill. Let me explain: Raising buildings is only a workable solution if you also commit to holding all the beaches in place — forever. This is what the federal government has done for New Jersey and New York.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be spending upwards of $5 billion pumping sand onto beaches from Virginia to Connecticut. The amount of sand they will move is staggering — 26 million cubic yards.

What will the cumulative environmental impact be from this level of dredging and filling? Nobody knows. The shorelines are being replenished solely to protect property. These beaches will require continual re-nourishment and expenditure.

There is little doubt that this spending is good for local economies in resort communities, but is it the job of federal taxpayers to cover the risk of investing in vulnerable areas?

The answer, of course, is no. Yet we wait until a hurricane hits someplace, and then spend a huge amount of money rebuilding and resetting the shoreline to where it was before the storm. We need coastal policy that is proactive and not reactive.

We need to prioritize coastal protection spending on those areas that have the best chance of long-term survival or those areas clearly in the best national interest. We need a new approach that acknowledges the science of coastal hazards and sea level rise. And we need to develop these plans in advance, at a national level, and have them ready to implement after the next storm.

Many envision retreat as an abandonment of the coast. In reality, a managed retreat would simply entail a rational change to the footprint of coastal communities.

It is also more environmentally sound than turning our beaches into massive coastal engineering projects designed only to protect property. In some places we need to stop rolling up our pants and just step out of the rising water.

Robert Young is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

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