But the levels of destruction wrought by Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy show that efforts to date have been wrongly directed or insufficient.
Data show that the sea is rising. Moreover, the frequency and intensity of Atlantic tropical cyclones are projected to increase.
Lands that support many homes and other infrastructure are likely to be underwater or increasingly vulnerable to storm surges in 100 years. Other near-shore lands will be uninhabitable by people because of the effects of the sea.
Retreat from the sea will be painful no matter how it is executed, but it will hurt most if Americans continue to try to protect all existing infrastructure until the sea destroys it and if we repeatedly rebuild in the same places.
Planning for the coming reality must be a collaborative effort of the multiple stakeholders with diverse interests in coastal values. We offer these suggestions as a starting point.
For centuries Americans have made their homes on the coast. Its lands and waters have provided food, places to live and safe harbors for the ships that serve our centers of commerce.
Coastal fish and wildlife, and even storms, have inspired us. We can continue to reap these benefits from the coast.
But the benefits will be greatest and the costs least if we manage ourselves wisely.
James D. Fraser, Sarah M. Karpanty and Daniel H. Catlin are coastal ecologists in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.