“Can seawalls help American cities adapt to coastal flooding?”

Jonghyun Yoo, Vaishnavi Sinha, Robert Mendelsohn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: This study aims to combine information about sea level rise (SLR), the probability distribution of storm surge, a flood damage function and the value of property by elevation along the coast of selected cities to measure expected flood damage. The selected six cities all have nearby long-term tidal stations that can be used to estimate the probability distribution of floods. The model is calibrated to each city. The study then compares the cost of building higher seawalls today along the coast versus the benefit of each wall (the reduction in expected flood damage). Design/methodology/approach: The combination of coastal storms and SLR has led to extensive flood damage across American cities. This study creates a simple generic model that evaluates whether seawalls would be effective at addressing this flooding problem. The paper develops an approach that readily measures the expected flood benefits and costs of alternative coastal seawalls. The approach takes account of near term SLR and the probability distribution of storm surge. The model finds seawalls are effective only in cities where many buildings are in the 25-year flood plain. Findings: Cities with many buildings built on land below 2 m in elevation (the 25-year flood plain) have high expected flood damage from storms and SLR. Cities which already have many buildings in this flood plain would benefit from seawalls. Assuming seawalls are built above the high tide line, the optimal wall height that maximizes net benefits is between 0.9 to 1.2 m. These relatively low seawalls block 70%–83% of expected flood damage in these cities. Fair flood insurance is the least cost strategy for handling the remaining damages that overtop the optimal seawalls. Research limitations/implications: The analysis evaluates whether or not to build a seawall the length of each city at high tide lines. However, the analysis also finds several long stretches of coast in two cities where a wall is not warranted because there are few vulnerable buildings. Future analyses should consider seawalls in more spatially detailed sections of each city. Each section could then be analyzed independently. Whether or not more complex hydrodynamic models are needed to evaluate coastal resilience planning should also be explored. Alternative solutions such as planned retreat and nature-based solutions should be compared with seawalls in future studies as well. Practical implications: Cities should be careful to avoid development in the 25-year flood plain because of high expected flood damage. Cities that have low elevation areas subject to frequent flooding should consider seawalls to reduce frequent flooding. Because they are very costly and have low expected benefits, high walls that can stop a one-hundred-year storm are generally not worth building. Social implications: The analysis reveals that the most important factor determining the vulnerability of cities along the eastern coastline of the USA is the number of buildings built below 2 m in elevation (the 25-year flood plain). Cities should use zoning to discourage further development in the 25-year flood plain. Cities which already have many buildings in this flood plain would benefit from city-wide seawalls. Assuming these walls are built at mean high-high tide, the optimal height of current seawalls should be relatively modest – averaging about 0.9–1.2 m above ground. Using fair insurance for the remaining risk is less expensive than building taller walls. In particular, the cost of seawalls that protect against a major hurricane surge are over three times the expected benefit and should not be built. As decades pass and observed sea level progresses, seawalls and the boundary of the 25-year flood plain should be reevaluated. Originality/value: This paper develops a coastal flood model that combines SLR and the probability distribution of storm surges with the value of property by elevation to estimate the expected damage from storm surge. The model is relatively easy to calibrate making it a practical tool to guide city flood planning. The authors illustrate what insights such a model gives about coastal resilience to flooding across six cities along the Eastern US coastline.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-492
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management
Issue number4
StatePublished - 17 Jul 2023


  • Coastal resilience
  • Sea level rise
  • Seawalls
  • Storms


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