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Surging storms: Can the US adapt in time to avert coastal damage?

Damage from severe storms such as Sandy is likely to escalate by the end of the century as the population grows and people continue to build along the Eastern Seaboard.

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Houses in Bayhead, N.J., showed effects of Sandy Nov. 2. Rising populations and seas, and more severe weather, may mean $100 billion a year in global damage by 2100.

Tim Larsen/New Jersey Governor’s Office/Reuters

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An afternoon breeze tousles the waters of a tiny harbor here at the mouth of Narragansett Bay – nothing like the heavy winds, rain, and storm surge superstorm Sandy brought to the East Coast as October ended.

Armed with a cordless drill, Andrew Waite, a US Geological Survey (USGS) hydrologist, drops onto his stomach and scooches far enough over the edge of a weathered wooden pier to allow him to remove a length of narrow PVC pipe from a piling. It's not a task for the squeamish: The pier's deck looks as though seabirds have used it to practice carpet bombing.

Mr. Waite and a co-worker are retrieving storm-surge gauges deployed in advance of Sandy – a scene being repeated up and down the East Coast. The USGS will use the readings (six feet at this particular site) to update flood maps, and also to check the accuracy of surge forecasts, with an eye to improving them.

Both goals could hardly be more important, as global warming raises sea levels and severe-storm activity intensifies off the Eastern Seaboard and elsewhere. Assessing the risk that storm surges pose to future coastal homes and businesses goes hand in glove with efforts to reduce vulnerability to such events.

"You think about it, and putting factors like sea level [rise] and all that aside, you're building where you're going to get flooded," Waite says. "It's just a matter of time."

Indeed, damage from tropical systems such as Sandy are projected to multiply by the end of the century as the population grows and people put more assets in harm's way. That's true whether or not global warming, which many researchers say is feeding extreme-weather events, is factored in.

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