OP-ED: Flooding an election issue for 123 million Americans

York Dispatch

As we enter the next presidential election season, there's a looming issue that affects more than 123 million Americans, approximately one-third of the U.S. population. It's an issue that has enormous implications for people's security, jobs and the economy. Yet we do not hear many politicians, including the current presidential candidates, talking about it.

What's this issue? Coastal flooding and sea-level rise.

More than 45 percent of America's GDP is tied to our coasts. More than 66 million jobs are at stake, totaling $3.4 trillion in wages. States from Maine to Texas and Alaska to California have property along coastal areas. And it's a major issue for people in our cities of Hoboken, New Jersey, and Coral Gables, Florida.

Recent historic flooding in South Carolina underscores just how dangerous and costly flooding can be. Hundreds of people were displaced, roads were impassable, and businesses were shut down for days. In many places, it's not just the big storms and near-misses, like Hurricane Joaquin, that leave people worried. It's also "sunny day flooding" that's happening more regularly as high tides push water past the beaches and onto local streets as sea levels rise.

Many cities and towns are suffering from increased flooding, including so-called nuisance flooding that affects roads, drainage systems and other infrastructure. According to NOAA, nuisance flooding increased between 300 percent and 900 percent along all three U.S. coasts since the 1960s. Much of this flooding is being accelerated by sea-level rise associated with our changing climate.

Many officials in cities and towns are already addressing increased coastal flooding. Mayors are on the front lines. We worry all the time about preparedness and resiliency planning. We know it makes no sense to wait until disasters strike to think about what we could have done, when preventative measures are a cost-effective way to avoid damage and destruction.

The stakes are huge. In Florida, tourism is the biggest industry, bringing in nearly $72 billion in 2012. If beach towns become inundated, money for repairing and moving vital infrastructure will instead become a drain on city budgets, state finances and federal agencies. The same is true in urban metro areas up and down our coasts.

As we approach the three-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, we're reminded of the devastation that hit the New York-New Jersey area. The toll was severe, costing the people of Hoboken $100 million in private property damage, crippling businesses and shutting down our public transportation system. As the sea level rises, coastal flooding, stormwater drainage challenges and other related problems are expected to get worse.

That's why a diverse and bipartisan group of more than 35 mayors and local elected officials are gathering this week in Hampton, New Hampshire, for a summit to discuss local and national responses to coastal flooding. We'll speak with fellow mayors, state officials and representatives from federal agencies who are responsible for studying, insuring and protecting our coastlines. We'll also hear from security experts in the U.S. Navy who will explain how sea-level rise driven by climate change poses a long-term threat to military facilities and our fleets around the world.

This is a truly bipartisan event, with more Republicans than Democrats in attendance. The ocean doesn't care if we are conservative or liberal; either way it's moving closer to our homes and businesses.

The monumental scale of this problem demands the attention of our national leaders. It's an issue that should be of concern for any elected official who wants to strengthen the U.S. economy and protect our communities. With so much at stake, there's no time for partisan bickering or attempts to skirt the issue. The 123 million Americans who live in coastal counties need action.

That's why we're calling on all presidential candidates, regardless of their party, to take a stand and tell us what they'll do to address coastal flooding and sea-level rise. What measures will they take to support local communities facing rising tides? What action will they take to prevent more damage over the long term?

America's leaders can't afford to stick their heads in the sand, because if they do, in just a few years, that sand might just be gone.

— Jim Cason, a Republican, is mayor of Coral Gables, Florida. Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat, is mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey.