|This story was produced and published in partnership with the News Journal, a newspaper in Delaware.|
Southern Delaware Realtor Lee Ann Wilkinson has been helping people achieve their dreams of owning a beach house for more than 30 years.
But owning beachfront property in a low-lying and storm-prone state like Delaware comes with flood risks.
Flooding on the Delaware Bay side of Lewes reaches homes in the area during a storm on Jan. 23, 2016.
Credit: Chuck Snyder/The News Journal
By the time some of Wilkinson's newer clients pay off their mortgages, their dreams of living on the coast may be dashed as storms and high tides push floodwaters farther inland, threatening property and cutting off neighborhoods.
Yet, there are more people than one might think who are ready to spend millions of dollars anyway. For every homebuyer who passes, Wilkinson said, there are plenty of others waiting to swipe it off the market almost as quickly as it can be listed.
“Not everybody gambles,” Wilkinson said. “Not everybody sky dives. Everybody’s different. There are always people that are risk-takers and others that are not.”
In coastal Delaware, such gamblers abound. A new analysis shows that between 2010 and 2017 more than 700 homes — worth roughly $500 million — were built on land that’s projected to be inundated at least once a year on average by 2050 unless pricey measures are taken to keep the water away.
Statewide, roughly 7,500 houses face such risks — 10 percent of which are less than a decade old. While that threat exists nearly anywhere in America with a coastal view, it is more heavily concentrated in Delaware, the analysis found.
The Mid-Atlantic is a hotspot for sea-level rise and coastal construction, spurred in part by rebuilding following Hurricane Sandy and gradual recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. The only two counties among 24 coastal states with more new houses in such vulnerable areas than Sussex County are in southern New Jersey — Ocean and Cape May counties.
Climate Central performed the analysis of future risks of flooding by combining scientific projections with data from real estate listing company Zillow. Parts of Kent and New Castle counties were also found to face risks.
In Sussex County, dozens of vulnerable houses have been built in Lewes, a town bordered by expansive marshland and tributaries to the north and Cape Henlopen State Park and the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast. Neighborhoods found to be most at risk in the Lewes area included Lewes Beach and Cape Shores.
The Lewes that Wilkinson sells to her clients today has evolved from its earliest days as a Dutch trading post into a hub for menhaden fishing into now a quaint, historic town known for its charm, quiet beaches and multi-million-dollar waterfront homes.
Even in those earliest of days, settlers without access to the Weather Channel knew it best to build on higher ground. So much of Lewes is surrounded by water that more than 50 percent of the land within city limits has been set aside as open space, a place to absorb incoming flood waters and rising seas, said City Mayor Ted Becker.
“The people who come here in the summer time or on a beautiful day, when the canal is in its banks and everything is gorgeous, they never think about the idea that [a recent] Saturday at the high tide, the water was across Savannah Road and up over the sidewalk in front of the Beacon Motel,” he said. “Now, we could have much worse. People are more sensitive to it, but habits are hard to change.”
When the late Thomas Orr bought his new bride one of the first homes on Lewes Beach in the late 1940s, people in town thought the couple was “wacky” to want to deal with all that sand, said Carol Orr.
This photo shared by Carol Orr shows her home as it was built in 1946. Since then, sand and the addition of top soil has buried most of the concrete foundation seen here.
Credit: Maddy Lauria/The News Journal
But after 71 years of watching the sun rise over the bay — and a few instances of needing to flee to higher ground for their safety — Orr said she would not have chosen anywhere else to raise a son and grow old.
But as she has watched other homes be built on the beach over the years — some at ground level and greater risk of inundation — Orr said she would wonder how people could take the risk of living so close to the water for granted.
“How can you be so stupid?” she asked.
Seas are rising faster as heat-trapping pollution is released from fossil fuels, farming and forest losses, driving up air and ocean temperatures, melting ice into seas and expanding ocean waters.
Efforts to reduce emissions could lessen future impacts, but won't undo the damage already done, which will continue to push up sea levels for decades to come.
Natural geological processes and groundwater pumping are accelerating local sea-level rise along the Mid-Atlantic.
Water levels have risen more than a foot during the past century at the site of a federal tide gauge in Lewes. The new analysis examined the likely impacts of a little more than a foot of additional sea level rise here by 2050.
Last year was the second-warmest year on record in Delaware, and the warming temperatures are fueling violent storms that produce storm surges and heavy rain.
Even as risks become more apparent, they’re having little impact on coastal building and buying. Southern Delaware real estate agents told The News Journal earlier this year the coastal real estate market is the best they have seen in a decade.
With more homes exposed to rising seas — which are climbing in the country’s lowest-lying state at a rate nearly twice the global average — why do people keep building and buying in the same places scientists say will face the greatest risks in coming decades?
For those willing to take the risk, the answer may be quite simple: Because they can.
Click to enlarge. Explore our report, Ocean at the Door: New Homes and the Rising Sea.
The Impact of a Drenching Nightmare
Wilkinson works with both modestly and high-priced homes in southern Delaware. Most recently, she sold a $4 million beach house to a Delaware couple who had worked abroad and are now ready to retire on the water.
The previous owners, after paying off the mortgage, had foregone flood insurance because they thought it was a waste of money. The house sits well above the 100-year floodplain, she said.
Lewes is one of more than a dozen communities in Delaware with locally required freeboard, additional elevation that towns can require to keep a structure above modeled flood waters from a 100-year storm. A 100-year storm has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
In Lewes, homes must be built at least 18 inches above that base. At least one Delaware beach town requires an additional 3 feet above the minimum.
For those newer coastal homes like that $4 million one located in a private beachside neighborhood called Cape Shores, strict federal, state and local regulations on building elevations and flood insurance requirements can potentially mean more protections from rising floodwaters, Wilkinson said.
“There are enough people that want this and will spend the money,” she said. “And they will take the chance.”
When the Union of Concerned Scientists released a similar report this summer, estimating that up to 31,000 people and 24,000 homes in Delaware could see impacts from climate change and rising sea levels by the end of the century, analysts warned that those facing the greatest risks were living in homes worth far less than the state's median home value. Many others were retirees, relying heavily on the value of their homes, the report said.
In Lewes, about 40 percent of the population is over 65, said Danielle Swallow, a coastal hazards specialist at the University of Delaware’s Sea Grant program. That could make it more difficult for them to relocate or recover from a natural disaster.
“You have this population of retirees that are moving toward the coast and in the floodplain, and in a lot of cases, a lot of their personal savings and their life's wealth is tied up in that home,” Swallow said. “Do they have the capacity to recover as quickly as someone who is still in the work force?”
This iconic sign on Savannah Road in Lewes shows historic flood levels, and the rust at the bottom shows that water is never too far away.
Credit: Maddy Lauria/The News Journal
Paul Camenisch, a local custom builder whose three-man company takes jobs only by word of mouth, agreed. A few years ago, they were building a house a few miles to the north along Delaware Bay when a nor’easter hit and they could not get to the site because the road had flooded out.
But that didn’t change his clients’ minds.
“It’s where we live,” he said. “We live on a peninsula surrounded by water and under the land, it’s water.”
The Delaware native said it is not his job to tell clients where or what they should build. It is his job to build the home of their dreams, even if it means erecting a home on stilts that could be tough to access if projected sea levels flood the roads leading to it.
“We put it where they tell us to put it,” he said. “We’ve had houses built within fractions of an inch of what the regulation is supposed to be. We’re very diligent in how we build a house. We don’t hide anything.”
Camenisch lives farther inland in Delaware’s most southern, coastal county, close to a river known to overflow and flood downtown Milton, the home of Dogfish Head, during even the mildest nor’easter.
He is no stranger to rising seas and the impacts of climate change.
A police officer blocks Savannah Road in Lewes due to standing water in the road during Delaware's first nor'easter of the season in late October 2018.
Credit: Jason Minto/The News Journal
“I’ve lived here 50 years and I’ve seen the change,” he said. “Water rises up and goes to places it’s never been before.”
But as a business owner, he said it doesn't make much sense to turn them down.
“I don’t think we’ve ever heard anybody say, ‘we’re not going to build this house because it’s going to flood,’” he said. “They’re all susceptible. But that’s why they want it. They want to see the water. They want the $1 million house and the $1 million view to go with it.”
All Camenisch can do is make sure he is following the law and using the most updated techniques and materials available. Because if he doesn’t, another builder will.
Regulating the American Dream
The draw to live near the water, even if it’s only for part of the year, is not subsiding even though officials along Delaware’s coasts know those waterfront views are changing.
Because the desire to build homes and condominiums with stunning waterfront views is so strong, it means more people are now in the path of those storms and rising seas than when the Orrs cozied into their beach-front home.
In Lewes alone, several parcels of land like the Groome Church property on New Road near the Great Marsh are being eyed for new neighborhoods. That could bring hundreds of new residents within stone's throw of floodplains and roads already known to flood at high tide.
Delaware has done a lot of progressive work regarding planning and accounting for the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, over the last decade, said Sea Grant's Swallow. All that planning cannot stop the building driven by a high-demand market, though.
“In Delaware, there’s not enough appreciation that our storms are getting more intense, so when we do have storms there’s potentially more rainfall, there could be more storm surge, and all that gets exacerbated by sea level rise and the fact that we’re continuing to develop in our flood plain,” she said.
Flooding at the intersection of Park and Pilottown Road in Lewes was seen during Delaware's first nor'easter of the season in late October 2018.
Credit: Jason Minto/The News Journal
Plans and studies may not seem sexy, but evaluating how many rooftops and pavements cover the coastal areas and force storm water into the streets can shape how communities driven by coastal tourism ensure that future visitors can still get to the beach or their homes.
Even owners of houses that are elevated are impacted by flooding. With only three roads in and out of Lewes, Becker said the risk of rising seas is more than an inconvenience. In the face of another Superstorm Sandy or a direct hit from a hurricane, flooded roads could cut residents off from reaching safer, higher ground.
“This is not a unique problem for Lewes,” Becker said. “There’s always more we can do, but we have to create a culture of awareness.”
The trouble, though, is that many of the people who own homes that will face the greatest risk in coming decades are not around all year. They don’t see what happens when nor’easters trap water inland and wash out the roads, he said.
People also may not be assuming all of the risk because that risk is often subsidized through the National Flood Insurance Program, state officials said. As of June 30, the flood insurance program was more than $20 billion in debt while managing more than 5 million policies nationwide, 26,752 of which are in Delaware, according to FEMA spokesman Michael Hart.
Because it has been so long since Delaware has been hard hit by a major coastal storm, some home owners, buyers and builders may be living a false sense of complacency, Swallow said.
“I think the day is just around the corner when attitudes are going to change,” she said.
Unless drastic changes are made to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, Delaware’s coastline is expected to change dramatically by the time today's toddlers are retired. In a 2012 report, Delaware experts estimated that up to 11 percent of the state’s landmass could be underwater by 2100 if nothing is done to move toward cleaner energy production.
“Delaware is a smaller piece of what we need to do nationally, which is a smaller piece of what we need to do globally,” said Shawn Garvin, secretary of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “Despite the retreat from the federal government, at least for now, on the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Accord, we’re still moving forward in doing our part.”
Not Worth the Risk
Wilkinson said there are plenty of affluent, well-educated home buyers who have the means to buy right on the beach but are not remotely interested or willing to take the risk of living so close to encroaching waters.
“There are certain people who will mention sea level rise to me and say, ‘I’m not interested in looking there.’ Period,” she said. “And those people won’t look. They won’t ever consider it.”
Among that group are Brian and Patricia McCarthy, who spent most of their lives overseas working for the Department of State.
When it came time to think about retirement, the McCarthys realized that moving around so much meant they did not really have a hometown to return to. They had known of Lewes as a vacation spot, and spent a few years living in the higher part of town while they weighed the risks of building near the water.
The McCarthys built this new home on Pilottown Road in Lewes after careful consideration of the risks. Even though they are technically out of the floodplain, they decided to elevate and insure the home regardless.
Credit: Maddy Lauria/The News Journal
Instead of living along the sandy shores of Lewes Beach or Cape Shores, they recently built a home 200 yards outside the 100-year floodplain on a little rise of land. They also elevated the structure 3 feet.
“It wasn’t until we moved in that we realized how much water there is to deal with,” said Patricia, thankful for a generous amount of pervious surface included in the landscaping after an abnormally wet spring and summer.
Across the street from the McCarthy’s is a small parking area and grassy lot that dips down to the banks of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. There, the couple has a boat dock and installed a retaining wall; they’ve seen high tides lap at the front of their parking spots.
“We’re not naïve,” Brian McCarthy said. “But it’s not something I worry about every day. My bigger concern is wind from nor’easters.”
For those willing to splurge on high-priced homes that are expected to flood by the time the mortgage is paid off, Wilkinson said all it means is one less weekend overlooking the water.
“I think people probably would have that concern anywhere around here, and yes, there is a percentage of people that no matter what, even if they had the money, they’re not buying this stuff,” she said. “But there are enough people that want this and will spend the money. And they will take the chance.”
This story was produced through a partnership with the News Journal.