Coastal Hazards

Flooding and Erosion and other Coastal Hazards

Shorelines are dynamic places. Weather systems generate wind, waves, rain, and other forces that affect shorelines. Accompanying the weather systems are environmental effects including storm surge, overwash, flooding and erosion creating a complex array of coastal hazards wherever development occurs near the shore. Remember that where they do not create risks to life and property these hazards are simply natural events with positive effects on the coastal environment.  Climate change is another hazard that communities must begin to address, especially those adjacent to the coast where sea level rise due to climate change threatens to increase flooding and erosion.

Natural protective features such as floodplains, wetlands, offshore bars, beaches, dunes and bluffs help to protect the shoreline by absorbing storm energy and flood waters. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of these natural protective features are impeded by structures and development. Coastal hazards are created when development is exposed to risk of loss or damage by natural events.

Assessing the Hazard

In assessing the flooding and erosion hazards in your waterfront, you should take a look at:

  • the extent of any federally designated Flood Hazard Areas, floodways, coastal high hazard areas and Coastal Barrier Resources System units
  • the extent of and nature of any State designated Coastal Erosion Hazard Areas
  • the extent of other flooding and erosion risk areas
  • the coastal processes at work on your shoreline
  • the location of natural protective features such as wetlands, dunes and bluff
  • upland topography
  • inland and shoreline development patterns
  • land ownership details
  • regional weather conditions, historic weather patterns, and predicted future weather conditions
  • information presented in published scientific reports for your shoreline
  • navigation charts and bathymetric information
  • data on historic shoreline change and any ongoing shoreline monitoring initiatives
  • location, extent and condition of shore protection structures
  • records, photos and anecdotal information on past shoreline conditions and storm events
  • available maps and information predicting the future risk due to climate change

In partnership with New York Sea Grant, the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at Stony Brook University, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the US Army Corps of Engineers, an extensive set of data on the Atlantic Ocean beaches of New York was compiled.  The data includes aerial photos, orthographic photos, historic shorelines and multiple years of beach profile surveys.  The site also includes an analysis tool that extracts information on the dimensions of beach features, such as height of the dune, volume of the dune, width of the beach, etc. from the data.  This data can be used by decision makers to assess changes in the shoreline over the course of time.  The Atlantic Coast of New York Monitoring Program helps portray the ephemeral nature of beaches so planners can implement appropriate management measures.  Use the Atlantic Coast of New York Monitoring Program website to help familiarize yourself with beaches in your area and you may be surprised at how they change over the course of time.

Management of hazards related to flooding and erosion is a critical concern if you live, work, or depend on New York's coasts and waterways. These hazards extend across wide geographic areas and cannot be addressed on a piecemeal basis. Since the level of development and type of hazard exposure vary by locality, and the primary land use planning tools - planning, zoning, and infrastructure investment - to manage hazards risks are locally administered, local government is often the primary forum for addressing waterfront hazards. The best approach to hazard management is to develop a community plan to address potential hazards. This local focus is best supported through partnerships with federal and State programs (eg. Coastal hazard resilience plan) that provide basic standards to manage flooding and erosion hazards and a context for local management of hazard risk.

The primary questions to ask as you address shoreline hazards are:

  • What are the types, frequency and scale of the hazards?
  • How will the hazards change over the course of time?
  • Which areas, buildings, public facilities, institutions and vulnerable populations (elderly, disabled, low income) are at risk?
  • What are the risks to water-dependent uses?
  • What are the risks to the transportation network?
  • What other areas are available where development might be directed as the community changes over the course of time? Are these potential hazard areas now or as the climate changes?
  • What natural resources are at risk?
  • What mitigation measures are available to reduce future hazard risk?

Risk assessment is important for understanding the nature of shoreline hazard and climate change exposure. Risk will vary with topography, weather, exposure, geology, previous shore protection efforts and local conditions. Certain types of risks may be acceptable for one community and not in another. For instance, periodic shallow flooding without significant structural damage may be an acceptable risk if long term safety is reasonably certain.

Climate Change Adaptation and New York Communities

New York State communities are likely to experience significant adverse impacts to infrastructure, public health and safety, and natural resources due to climate change.  The severity of these impacts and the associated costs to communities can be reduced through planning and adaptation.  It is important to initiate actions early, and in coordination with current land use and capital development programs, in order to reduce the scale of the impacts from extreme events and to distribute adaptation costs over time.  The Department of State provides both technical assistance and grant funding to NYS communities on climate change adaptation.  Funding is available on a cost-shared basis for planning and implementation projects through the competitive Local Waterfront Revitalization Program’s Environmental Protection Fund grant program (link to LWRP grant page).

The Department has commenced the following pilot projects to address climate change:

  • City of Albany- The Department of State awarded an Environmental Protection Fund grant to the City to develop a climate change adaptation plan along with an update to its Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP).  The City will be integrating both the climate change adaptation plan and LWRP into its comprehensive plan.
  • South Shore Estuary- The Department of State is leading a regional effort on climate change adaptation for the Long Island South Shore Estuary. This effort will result in an amendment to the State Coastal Management Program with policies and recommendations specific to increasing the region’s resilience to climate change.
  • Coastal Hazard Resilience Plans – The Department has prepared draft guidance for local governments to manage coastal hazards, including post-storm redevelopment.  This program includes a cooperative assessment and adaptation process for community assets.  Coastal Hazard Resilience Plans may be completed using grant assistance as part of a Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.  

If interested in further information or technical assistance please contact Leah Akins at leah.akins@dos.ny.gov or (518) 486-7512.

Addressing Coastal Hazards

Different approaches to coastal hazards may be appropriate according to the nature of the risk and the adjacent use. New York State legislation (Article 42 of the Executive Law and Article 34 of the Environmental Conservation Law) gives priority to nonstructural measures, including the management of development to avoid hazard areas. Nonstructural approaches maximize protection afforded by natural processes and features. They offer the best opportunity for dependable long term risk reduction. They require the least long term maintenance. They have the least detrimental effects on other coastal and waterfront resources and uses. Structural measures may be the only viable option for highly developed urban areas and water-dependent uses. However, they require repeated maintenance and additional management measures, leave development exposed if conditions occur that exceed structure capacity and have negative impacts on other resources and other locations.
The following are some of the approaches you will want to consider to protect your waterfront from flooding and erosion and minimize the threat from coastal hazards:

  • Avoiding the inappropriate siting of structures in hazard areas
  • Protecting the natural dynamics of changing shorelines and maintain and improve the natural features and resources that protect against flooding and erosion
  • Using nonstructural measures to minimize damage to natural resources and property from flooding and erosion, including reviewing setbacks to ensure the siting of new buildings and accessory structures outside of Flood Hazard Zones and Coastal Erosion Hazard Areas
  • Relocating existing buildings and accessory structures landward to remove them from Flood Zones and Coastal Erosion Hazard Areas
  • Elevating or flood proofing of existing buildings and accessory structures
  • Stabilizing bluff, dune, backshore and beach formations with appropriate plantings of native vegetation including beach grass
  • Installing drainage devices to control water flowing over bluffs and bluff faces
  • Artificially nourishing bluffs, dunes, backshores and beaches
  • Limiting the use of hard structural erosion protection measures for control of erosion to protect water dependent uses, where vegetative approaches to controlling erosion are not effective or where enhancement of natural protective features would not provide erosion protection
  • Requiring mitigation to ensure that there is no adverse impact from the installation of hard structures
  • Managing inlets through sand bypassing
  • Developing measures to mitigate damage from future storms and climate change impacts
  • Planning for post-storm recovery and redevelopment
  • Participating in the Community Rating System of the National Flood Insurance Program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Partners and Links

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has a Coastal Erosion Management section. The section addresses coastal storm impacts, flooding, and erosion, and implements the state's Coastal Erosion Hazard Areas Law.  DEC is also the state point-of-contact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for shore protection, and houses the designated State Floodplain Manager. DEC was directed to prepare the Sea Level Task Force report.

The State Office of Emergency Management (SOEM) organizes disaster response, emergency preparedness and hazard mitigation for New York State. SOEM is a primary contact for municipalities working with FEMA. SOEM prepares the State Hazard Mitigation Plan and manages FEMA grants for local All-Hazard Mitigation Plans.

The NOAA Coastal Services Center (CSC) serves coastal resource managers and the state coastal programs. The mission of the CSC is to support the environmental, social, and economic well being of the coast by linking people, information, and technology.

Information on present and future tides and currents can be found at the National Ocean Service website, along with other coastal information.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), within the Department of Homeland Security, is a primary source of federal assistance in the event of a coastal disaster. FEMA administers several programs to reduce hazard risk, including the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program which provides funding for preparation of Hazard Mitigation Plans. FEMA also awards Hazard Mitigation Grants, which provide partial funding in support of projects that reduce potential future damages.  The FEMA National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) enables property owners in participating communities to purchase insurance protection against losses from flooding.