Regardless of the cause, studies indicate an impending rise in sea level along the U.S. coast. In response, several cities are spending billions to protect their coastline and infrastructure against future risks.
Almost 40% of Americans live within 10-minutes of the coast per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Many communities face challenges from powerful storms to rising sea levels.
In Charleston, S.C., experts say if nothing is done many people will be forced to move, estimating the city could be underwater in mere decades.
"Sea level rise doesn't discriminate," said Dale Morris, Chief Resilience Officer for the city of Charleston.
Studies show sea levels have risen over the last decade. Data from NOAA estimates global average sea levels have risen 8-9 inches since 1880 and predict levels to rise as much in the next 30 years as they have in the past century.
"We need to do this now, cause if we don't we're anticipating 14 inches of sea level rise by 2050," Morris said. "So is Norfolk. So is Miami. We're all anticipating this."
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A Princeton study published in August finds the U.S. could see what's known as 100-year floods happen every 1-30 years along the Southeast and Gulf coasts. Some estimates predict this could be an annual event for New England coastal towns.
The city of Charleston experiences flooding even on sunny days during high tides, which has caused extensive damage to homes and businesses. Since roughly 50% of the city is built in a floodplain, consistent flooding worries folks about potential devastation from the next dramatic storm surge.
"I don't want to move, I love it here," said Susan Lyons, a 20-year resident. "You can't say the water didn't happen – there it is. You want to blame climate change or bad luck; you still have to deal with the flooding wherever you think it comes from."
Fed up with the flooding, Lyons started the grassroots group Groundswell in 2017 to push city officials to act.
"We formed to make noise – it was an advocacy group, it still is," said Lyons.
After six years of hearing that noise, the city is bringing in the Army Corps of Engineers to study building an 8-mile storm surge structure intended to protect the peninsula area.
"The study is $3 million, that's the study," said Morris. "And to build it, the total structure around the peninsula is $1.3 billion."
Several other coastal cities are swallowing the cost of rising seas, including along New York and New Jersey coasts – with an estimated $10 billion needed to shield against storm surge.
In Houston, planners say it would take $30 billion to protect the city from a 100-year flood. These projects, however, take years to plan – let alone break ground. One of the first projects to do so will happen in Norfolk, VA, starting in 2025.
Data suggests coastal flood events have tripled in Norfolk since the 1970s. Now the city is working with the Army Corps of Engineers, scheduled to spend upwards of 2.5 billion to mitigate coastal storm flooding. However, critics argue none of that money is focused on sunny day flooding or rising sea levels.
Kristin Mazur with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District told CBN the project does more than critics realize, however, it won't reduce all the flooding that they experience. Michelle Hamor, Chief of Planning and Policy with the same division, echoed those sentiments.
"We would say this project will not reduce all the flooding that they will experience," Hamor said. "They will need to continue to listen to the city of Norfolk and their emergency response that they push out to the citizens."
The federal government will cover about 65% of these coastal storm risk projects thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure act, with the rest coming from each city. Norfolk still needs about $2 billion to cover the cost.
"There is a big (financial) gap, and we hope to receive funding in the future, but in order to do that we need to show progress," said Mazur.
Even after spending big money on flood protection, it's still not enough to keep up with the growing threat of flooding.
"If you're watching the news lately, insurance agencies are starting to back out of Florida because they can't afford to insure for flood damage without basically catastrophic losses to their business model," said Matthew Fountain, director of Stormwater Management in Charleston, SC.
That's because the National Flood Insurance Program has amassed $20 billion in debt since 2004, costing $280 million in interest alone each year. This means many flood-prone communities will no longer be properly protected.
"What they all predicted 20 years ago, the scientists off in their ivory towers, is now coming true," said Lyons. "I'm living it, and so are hundreds of people here and thousands (millions) of people around the country."
As risks and costs rise along with sea levels, leaders agree they must adapt to predicted coastal flooding in order to preserve their cities for future generations.