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opinion | Bill Golden

Invest in coastal infrastructure — or we all lose

The living room of a house in St. Bernard Parish was in disarray after floodwaters receded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The living room of a house in St. Bernard Parish was in disarray after floodwaters receded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Getty Images/file 2005/Getty

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a US Court of Federal Claims judge has ruled that the federal government was not only partly responsible for the flooding, but that the flooding constituted a “temporary taking of property.” She ordered the government to pay damages to the plaintiffs.

The ruling, by Judge Susan Braden in St. Bernard Parish v. The United States, could be a game changer for our nation; it could also be a budget buster for the federal government, which could owe damages in the trillions of dollars for future “property takings.”

If the ruling stands, it would serve as a wake-up call to a federal government that has so far failed to respond to the serious threat to our national security and economy posed by rising sea levels, extreme storms, and aging infrastructure. If the federal government is liable for the trillions of dollars in damages arising from this triple threat, the feds may well feel compelled to take decisive action. As a nation, we need to invest in coastal infrastructure.

The choice is clear: Continue to suffer billions of dollars in damages or invest in effective coastal resiliency infrastructure that will protect our coastal communities and launch a new era of economic and community development. The Braden ruling could be the catalyst that changes US policy from respond and repair to plan and invest.

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We must begin the process of rebuilding our nation’s crumbling coastal infrastructure. But it is vital that we do not make these investments out of fear of future damages; we should invest because our future economic and coastal community development depends on it. We built the federal highway system for the dual purpose of national security and economic development. Likewise we need to invest in an integrated interstate coastal infrastructure that will provide the same kind of economic engine for development.

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As with the cleanup of Boston Harbor in the early 1990s, repairing a coastal community does more than just stop a bad thing from becoming worse; it can lead to enormous economic returns on investment. For those of us who remember what Boston Harbor was and see what it has become, we know from first-hand experience that Boston has become a global leader in economic growth and fiscal opportunity precisely because we invested billions in the coastal infrastructure necessary to clean it up.

That investment – now seemingly modest by comparison – was not only the right thing to do for environmental and quality-of-life reasons, but it also began three decades of unprecedented growth and economic expansion for our now-vibrant harbor neighborhoods.

Let us now follow through with action and a determination to move our nation forward on coastal infrastructure. Braden’s ruling stands as the first step toward a strong and resilient future.

Former Massachusetts state Senator Bill Golden is executive director of the National Institute of Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure. As city solicitor for Quincy, Golden filed the lawsuit in December 1982 against the Metropolitan District Commission that initiated the court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor. He can be reached at lightship612@aol.com.

Related:

James Carroll: Scientists, speak up on climate change

Editorial: Baker should use state money to buy at-risk shoreline homes

Editorial: Save Sandwich’s coastline from erosion, sand damage

Nigella Hillgarth: A rare bipartisan effort to protect ocean habitats

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