SEA BRIGHT, N.J. | Superstorm Sandy, one of the nation's costliest natural disasters, is giving new urgency to an age-old debate about whether areas repeatedly damaged by storms should be rebuilt, or whether it might be cheaper in the long run to buy out vulnerable properties and let nature reclaim them.
The difficulty in getting aid for storm victims through Congress — most of a $60 billion package could get final approval next week — highlights the hard choices that may have to be made soon across the country, where the federal, state and local governments all say they don't have unlimited resources to keep writing checks when storms strike.
But the idea of abandoning a place that has been home for years is unthinkable for many.
"We're not retreating," said Dina Long, the mayor of Sea Bright, N.J., a chronically flooded spit of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River only slightly wider than the length of a football field in some spots. Three-quarters of its 1,400 residents are still homeless and the entire business district was wiped out; only four shops have managed to reopen.
Despite a rock and concrete sea wall and pumping equipment in the center of town, Sea Bright floods repeatedly. It is the go-to spot for TV news trucks every time a storm roars up the coast. But as in many other storm-damaged communities, there is a fierce will to survive, to rebuild and to restore.
"Nobody has come to us and said we shouldn't exist," she said. "It is antithetical to the Jersey mindset, and particularly to the Sea Bright mindset. We're known for being strong, for being resilient, for not backing down."
The story is different in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island, N.Y., where despite 20 years of flood-protection measures, Sandy's 12- to 14-foot-storm surge inundated the community, forcing some residents to their attics or roofs to survive. Three people died.
"Building again and again in this very sensitive flood plain will only achieve the same results — flooding, and possibly untimely death," homeowner Tina Downer told about 200 of her neighbors who gathered to discuss a potential buyout program last week. "It is not safe for anyone to live there."
The problem has worsened in recent decades with an explosion of development near the nation's shorelines. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that in 2003, approximately 153 million people — 53 percent of the nation's population — lived in coastal counties, an increase of 33 million people since 1980. The agency forecasts 12 million more to join them by 2015.
Scientists say that putting so many people in the most vulnerable areas is a recipe for disaster.
Jon Miller, a professor of coastal engineering at New Jersey's Stevens Institute of technology, said retreating from the most vulnerable areas makes scientific sense. But he said the things that were built there — beach clubs, boardwalks and amusement piers — give communities their character, and fuel tourism and business.
If buyouts did occur, he predicted they would happen in areas with lower property values because of the high cost of buying up prime coastal real estate. That could have the unintended consequence of placing the shore off-limits to all but the wealthy, he said.
"I grew up in Rahway and I remember the controversy when several properties along the Rahway River were bought out due to repetitive flood losses," Miller said. "It was painful and caused dissension in the community."
Residents feared not only being forced from their homes but also not getting enough money to buy a suitable home in the same community, Miller said.
A 1988 Duke University shore protection study cited a nor'easter that occurred in Sea Bright four years earlier, causing $82 million in damages — about equal to the value of all the town's buildings at the time.
"Clearly the economics of this situation dictate that Sea Bright is not worthy of salvation, although politics and other considerations may decide otherwise," the study asserted. "The prudent management alternative in this community would be the gradual removal or relocation of the buildings."