'Retreat' Is Not An Option As A California Beach Town Plans For Rising Seas Tens of millions of U.S. homes are threatened by rising seas. Communities across the country are planning for that future, but there are challenges to even having the discussion.
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'Retreat' Is Not An Option As A California Beach Town Plans For Rising Seas

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'Retreat' Is Not An Option As A California Beach Town Plans For Rising Seas

'Retreat' Is Not An Option As A California Beach Town Plans For Rising Seas

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By mid-century, flooding from rising seas and storms is likely to destroy or at least make unusable billions of dollars' worth of property and tens of millions of U.S. homes. This is according to the latest National Climate Assessment. Coastal communities around the country are preparing for those threats, but as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, there are challenges to even having this discussion.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's about 150 steps from John Imperato's home to the Pacific Ocean.

JOHN IMPERATO: Yeah, if the surf's good, it's a little fewer up here, you know.

ROTT: (Laughter).

Imperato lives with his son in Del Mar, Calif., just north of San Diego. It's an affluent tourist town, popular for its sunny beaches and high-priced boutiques. Imperato says he spent his life savings to live here.

IMPERATO: In Del Mar, you get a half a house for about $1.7 million. This is a duplex.


Imperato lives in one of the town's more expensive and most vulnerable neighborhoods - a low-lying beachside area near the mouth of the San Dieguito River. A house not far away is currently listed at $19 million. That house, like the rest of the oceanfront properties here, has a concrete wall on its beach side, separating home from sea. And at high tide, increasingly, that's all the separation there is.

IMPERATO: When these seawalls go, we go.

ROTT: The ocean by San Diego has risen nearly 10 inches in the last century. Scientists project the water will climb in Del Mar an additional 1 to 2 feet by 2050. By the turn of the century, the sea here could rise as much as 5 1/2 feet. Imperato says he sees the change. That's partly why he's trying to get out.

IMPERATO: I have my place pocket-listed. Do you know what a pocket listing is?

ROTT: No, I have no idea.

IMPERATO: Pocket listing is you want to sell your house, but you don't want to put a sign up with everyone else because then it's a race to the bottom.

ROTT: So instead, you tell a realtor to hawk it for you on the sly. Imperato says a lot of his neighbors are doing the same thing. But the chief reason isn't the physical threat of flooding. Imperato believes that's still decades away. And he says he can live with that risk...

IMPERATO: Because you can accept Mother Nature.

ROTT: What's harder to accept is what he sees as a more immediate threat - plans for that future, impacting his property value now.

IMPERATO: It's a kiss of death.

ROTT: Del Mar is one of dozens of communities in California planning for sea level rise under the guidance of the state's coastal commission. One of the options the state wants towns to consider is something called managed retreat, which essentially means ceding ground to rising seas. Some communities on California's coasts are embracing this strategy. When Del Mar looked at it, though, hysteria followed.

AMANDA LEE: What we learned from our community is that even the mere discussion of managed retreat, in the minds of some, completely devalues their property.

ROTT: Amanda Lee is the city senior planner. She says realtor groups immediately spoke out against the plan. Homeowners did the same. They argued that nobody would want to buy or lend in a place that has a formalized plan that includes retreat. So eventually, the city decided to not make managed retreat part of the adaptation plan they sent to the coastal commission.

LEE: So the concept is not to impact people before we actually see the changes realized in the environment.

ROTT: City Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland supports that decision. She was on the city's Sea Level Rise Committee.

TERRY GAASTERLAND: Sometimes it takes that first major event to happen before people are ready to really think about it.

ROTT: You don't want to do something that's going to affect you now, but...


ROTT: ...That's the inherent problem in climate change, right?

GAASTERLAND: OK, I'm going to push back at you. So we've been focusing a lot on managed retreat as we've been discussing this because that's kind of the topic at hand. However, we have a list of 25 adaptation tools that do not include managed retreat that we need to do first.

ROTT: She points to sand replenishment for beaches, seawall maintenance and river dredging, among others. All, she says, are cheaper than buying people out of their homes.

GAASTERLAND: So, in Del Mar, market value of all the properties in the managed retreat zone is estimated at $1.5 billion.

ROTT: Who, she asks, is going to pay for that? Dwight Worden served as Del Mar's mayor during much of that planning process. Sitting outside a roadside cafe on a hot, sunny day, he says managed retreat just does not make sense in Del Mar. But he's also realistic.

DWIGHT WORDEN: At some point, you're left with two options. You either organize a retreat, or you do what's called evacuation. And you call FEMA because you're flooded out. And what we're saying is, we realize that's the end of the line. But we want to try plan A. And if plan A doesn't work, we think there may be a Plan B.

ROTT: And on down the line. Worden says there's no easy answer, not here or anywhere else, dealing with the effects of sea level rise. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Del Mar, Calif.

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