- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

More than half of the nation’s population lives in coastal areas, and that is challenging evacuation procedures and emergency response in the event of natural disasters such as tsunamis or hurricanes, officials said yesterday.

In a report on coastal population trends, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that although coastal counties only constitute 17 percent of the U.S. land area — not including Alaska — they account for 53 percent of the population,or 153 million people. And that number is growing.

Between 1980 and 2003, coastal population increased by 33 million people, and NOAA estimates that it will increase by 12 million people by 2015.

One direct consequence of the growing density in coastal areas is the possible exposure to danger for thousands of American families in the case of an emergency, making evacuation more difficult, officials said during a press briefing at the Commerce Department yesterday.

Richard Spinrad, director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, said vertical evacuation — in which people flee upward in taller buildings — can be a safe option in places at risk of tsunamis, particularly on the West Coast.

Mr. Spinrad added that moving people upstairs in a well-constructed structure can be as effective as driving them inland. The report, an update from a decade ago, likely will be used in local zoning decisions on whether to allow new buildings in a particular area, he said.

The population explosion affecting the nation’s coastal areas also poses environmental and economic challenges to local officials.

“Coastal ecosystems are pressured by population growth, leaving them vulnerable to pollution, habitat degradation and loss, overfishing, invasive species and increased coastal hazards, such as sea-level rise,” the report says. “With more people comes the need for increased infrastructure, which may lead to even more negative effects on natural resources.”

Increasing population also poses problems to urban development and providing services to new residents.

“The predicted increase in coastal population will increase development and user conflicts, putting even greater burden on … coastal-management programs to do more with less,” said Tony MacDonald, executive director of the Coastal States Organization, arguing that there is a critical need for resources to effectively address the increasing demands on the nation’s coasts.

The NOAA report defines a county as coastal if it is located on a coast or if at least 15 percent of the county’s total land area is located within a coastal watershed. That definition encompasses 673 counties in the United States.

The “hot spots” of population growth in coastal areas in 1980 to 2003 were Los Angeles County, Calif.; Harris County, Texas, which includes the Houston-Galveston Bay area; and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

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