In his recent book “The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America's Coasts,” Pulitzer Prize winning author Gilbert M. Gaul suggests that the 20th century pattern of coastal development has doomed vast swaths of prime real estate to potential destruction. Thousands of miles of heavily developed shoreline lies in the path of increasingly powerful storms and rising sea levels. Building effective barriers around these areas is impractical and prohibitively expensive. “Backers of these projects talk about building resilient, sustainable coasts,” he writes. “But even then, they acknowledge that barriers, levees, and sand dunes will not eliminate flooding. Given time, they allow, water will always win out.”
Like many of the areas Gaul discusses, Chatham's Little Beach became a neighborhood of multi-million-dollar homes—greatly outnumbering the few modest summer cottages that remain—thanks in large part to a government program that used dredged material to fill in wetlands. For much of this century, the low lying area was protected from major storm surges by North Beach. That protection is mostly gone now, and even high course tides send ocean waters lapping dangerously close to homes. When there is major flooding, as we saw in 2018, the flood waters have nowhere to go. When Stage Harbor was dredged and the Morris Island causeway created in 1957, the system's natural flow was altered; marshes that were filled eliminated their ability to absorb flood waters, and now when the ocean pours over the low dunes during storms, there's nowhere for the water to go.
Little Beach property owners have a $2,468,982 plan to prevent flood waters from inundating the neighborhood, but the fate of that plan is in doubt. A Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency $1 million grant has been wait-listed, with little hope that it will be forthcoming soon, and support for a town contribution of a like amount, given the lack of public property in the area, is uncertain. But even the plan is only designed to protect against a 50-year storm, which is likely to seem routine, thanks to the influences of climate change and sea level rise. To forestall the immediate risk, dunes have been raised and some houses have been fortified against flood waters.
Little Beach, like other vulnerable coastal areas, can't be undeveloped. And as Gaul points out, the water will always win. Elevating homes and the roadways may be a better solution than trying to stop flood waters, but that's not something all homeowners can afford. It's time for the town to have a deep discussion about how far to go and how much public resources to devote to protecting Little Beach, and by extension, the Morris Island causeway and access to even more valuable real estate.