Coastal Living—More Like Coastal Dying, Delaware’s Coastal Flooding Problem

jess gardner

By Jess Gardner
Published: November 27, 2022

In 100 years, my family will own beachfront property. Not because we’re investing in new land, but because we live in Lewes, Delaware. Using the FEMA Delaware flood planning tool, I was able to look up my address and see that the beach—which is currently over a mile away from my house—will be a quick two-minute walk in one hundred years once the rising sea levels inundate that mile-long stretch of my neighbors’ homes. 

In 100 years, the landscape of my town will be completely changed due to rising sea levels. It’s not just Lewes but all of Delaware that’s at risk: Delaware has the lowest mean elevation out of all fifty states, the tectonic plate Delaware sits on is experiencing a natural sinking, and, according to DNREC,  human development on nearby beaches has led to the removal of coastal wetlands that typically mitigate the effects of flooding. Combined with the rising sea levels brought on by climate change, these human and geological features has caused Delaware to reach its tipping point, increasing the frequency and severity of floods across the state. Flooding can now occur due to the more extreme high tides in autumn, storm water overflow since there is less space in drainage systems, and increasing storm surge when hurricanes hit ( home image

These future floods will have serious consequences. A 2014 Climate Central risk report estimates that in a low-range sea level rise scenario Delaware will likely see record-breaking coastal floods within the next 20 years and will see floods more than five feet above the high tide line by 2100. Sixty-two thousand acres of land lie less than five feet above the high tide line and 20,000 homes have been built on this area, meaning that over 20,000 Delawareans will probably lose their homes within the next eighty years. This estimate is an optimistic scenario; if sea levels continue to rise rapidly then the state will see floods nine feet above the high tide line by 2100, which will wipe out 40,000 homes and cost over two billion dollars in lost property value. 

It scares me to learn this ugly truth about Delaware’s vulnerability to flooding. However, what truly makes me afraid is the billboards of families neatly posed in front of upper middle class houses that I see driving down the highway that connects Lewes to the other Sussex County beach towns. These billboards are advertising new neighborhoods that are popping up all across the area. This new development is unsustainable because many of these neighborhoods are being built in flood risk areas. A 2019 report from Climate Central and Zillow showed that Delaware is developing ten year flood risk zones twice as fast as it’s developing safe zones and that over 1,000 homes have recently been built in a flood risk zone. People want coastal living and the real estate industry wants to sell houses, but at what cost? 

Map of flood pronned development in the US

It’s unethical that coastal land development, one of the key drivers of Delaware’s vulnerability to flooding, is continuing on and creating a dangerous positive feedback loop of increasing flood risk. People are buying these newly built properties for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sold on the idea of living in a beautiful beach town, only to potentially have their homes flooded in a matter of decades. By continuing to build new homes in flood risk areas, Big Real Estate is putting money before people. 

Not only is new coastal housing development unfair to prospective homeowners, it also destroys what little coastal wetlands remain. In 2019, the Breakwater Beach neighborhood (pictured below) of multi-million dollar homes was built over one of the seven remaining coastal freshwater wetlands habitats of the critically endangered Bethany Beach Firefly. The developers were able to use a loophole in Delaware’s wetlands protection laws by using wooden pilings in order to build the neighborhood over—not on top of—the wetlands habitat, but this development still destroyed that habitat. Continued development is damaging our wetlands ecosystems, as evidenced by the fact that in 2022 you can only find Bethany Beach Fireflies in state parks. 

Breakwater Beach Development
Breakwater Beach
Breakwater Beach
Breakwater Beach

Many plants and animals are dependent on the wetlands habitat—and humans are too. Wetlands absorb storm surge and prevent coastal erosion, which reduces the power of floods on our landscapes. Delaware’s remaining coastal wetlands are also threatened by the rising sea levels, since the increased water could drown plants and animals. In order to protect wetlands across Delaware, DNREC is taking on multiple projects to conserve these important ecosystems in order to restore our natural flood barriers. If Delaware is going to weather the imminent danger of floods, then we need to be developing our wetlands ecosystems, not houses.