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How to Soften Future Storm Blows?

Neal Peirce / Nov 15 2012

For Release Sunday, November 18, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceHurricane Sandy delivered New York, America’s premier world city, a devastating blow. Literally millions of lives were affected. Damage estimates for the city and its environs – exclusive of New Jersey and Connecticut – run as high as $18 billion.

Sandy’s horrific destruction confirms beyond reasonable doubt that extreme weather events ¬– all coinciding with the forward march of climate change – will impact our coastlines throughout this century.

There are clear global response models. The Netherlands, responding to the North Sea tidal surge of 1953 that pushed water 18.5 feet above sea level and took 1,836 lives, has made storm protection a national security issue. The Dutch have constructed a complex series of levees. Included is a gateway of huge swinging steel arms, twice the size of the Eiffel Tower, to protect Rotterdam from storm surge.

Britain, defending its crown jewel city of London, has constructed a massive flood barrier on the Thames River. Venice is building a massive system of moveable barriers which will rise from the seabed to protect the city from high tides.

Assume similar protections constructed on the seaward sides of America’s most exposed major metropolises – New York, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, the Tampa Bay and Virginia Beach areas and others. The costs would run into the tens and hundreds of billions.

But with rising global temperatures (both air and sea water), with huge and growing proportions of Americans choosing to live on our coastlines, usually in or near our major cities, is there really any other choice? And isn’t it imperative to protect our overwhelmingly metro area-focused national economy?

Hurricane Sandy’s blow on New York represented a direct hit on lower Manhattan and Wall Street – the epicenter of global finance, peopled with master financial planners. Yet here is an irony: “Wall Street,” notes infrastructure expert Michael Likosky, “continues to build Chinese, Middle East and North African, Indian, and other nations’ infrastructure and pipelines. It needs to do more at home.”

With a national infrastructure bank of the type endorsed by President Obama and many top fiscal experts, there’d also be a strong spur to attract big financial capital pools now on the sidelines.

But Likosky offers a warning not to “silo,” or consider as stand-alones, the massive sea walls and other engineering projects needed to protect cities and shorelines. He’d look for ways to integrate the new flood safeguards with major water supply and energy and transportation projects, fostering synergies and economies to maximize the resilience of cities and metropolitan regions.

And there’s another wrinkle. In contrast to “hard” engineering, we need to examine the promising “soft” side to hurricane and storm resistance. By some estimates, coastal wetlands provide more than $2 billion a year in storm surge and flood protection along U.S. coastlines.

Yet careless development practices can trigger severe marsh erosion and collapse. A top example is the oil and gas industry’s vast network of canals and pipelines that puncturing the Mississippi River delta, radically increasing storm vulnerability. Likewise, the East Coast’s massive oyster reefs, once a natural sea wall for New York, were decimated by decades of city-discharged pollutants.

A top solution for us now, insists my New York developer friend Jonathan Rose, is “to recreate a wetlands barrier – the systems that protected our coasts for hundreds of thousands of years.”

One New York study, in fact, suggests active steps to create an archipelago of islands and reefs to dampen storms currents. There’s even a sliver of hope that water quality improvements begun after passage of the Clean Water Act could speed revival of the historic oyster reefs.

What’s likely needed is a mix – big engineering projects such as sea barriers, but also a range of environmentally friendly “soft” solutions.

Sandy, however, is raising another troublesome issue: the future of intense building activity on our shorelines. The massive destruction Sandy inflicted on the Jersey Shore and Long Island, Rose notes, underscores the folly of building and rebuilding on vulnerable outer reefs and other exposed locations.

State laws forcing carriers to keep insuring such exposed properties, as well as the availability of federal storm insurance, foster building in highly vulnerable areas. Some 40 percent of federal claims go to 2 percent of properties that were repeatedly flooded.

An added factor, Rose observes: the enormous stresses that serious storms place on oceanside fire and police and road systems, as well as public utilities.

Do we want to keep tolerating – and insuring – rampant coastal development? Should post-storm claim awards only be usable for development in safer spots? Those are tough next questions for public debate.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

10 Comments

  1. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted November 15, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    John Stossel has done excellent work reporting on the lunacy of our flood insurance laws, both on the coast and along major rivers. i.e. don’t have private flood insurance? No problem, the feds will reimburse losses for free.

    Good luck convincing the Democrats to end the lunacy.

  2. Marc Brenman
    Posted November 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Who will pay for all this? Massive infrastructure projects like those suggested routinely run 200-400% over budget and take 2 to 4 times as long a projected.

  3. Grant Hutchinson
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Shame no one was listening to NASA scent 20 years ago.

  4. Grant Hutchinson
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Shame no one was listening to NASA 20 years ago.

  5. Richard wakeford
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Yes, climate change adaptation measures will be expensive, especially in the second half of the century, unless globally we can be a bit more serious about mitigation. That’s where Wall Street might play a crucial role.

  6. Posted November 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    At the state level, the Shorelines Management Act is being amended for the first time since its passage in the 1970s. WA State Department of Ecology and counties/cities should not accept proposed changes to the Shorelines Act or any other regulations that weaken the existing law and promote more coastal development, rather than less. On the national level, FEMA could offer these choices: a one time pay-out by FEMA for relocation OR re-building, with no future insurability. FEMA policies could pay more for cooperatively planned and designed re-builds or for entire communities who want to re-locate. People need incentives, both stick and carrot, to make sensible choices. House designs for coastal areas should include elevated concrete domes or other proven designs and materials, which seem to be suited for hurricane level storms. Changing building codes to require underground power supplies and other safety measures could help. Coastal communities where the land is held as a cooperative and the homes privately owned could consider rebuilding as multi-family mid-level structures built to hurricane/flood force, rather than re-creating vulnerable cottages. In addition to those who lost their homes, citizens, who as taxpayers finance the re-building, should have some say in the process. There is no shortage of ways to re-build smarter or better. The question is do we have the political will to do something different.

  7. Steve Erickson
    Posted November 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes, reforming FEA and development patterns is urgently needed, But this is secondary to the dealing with the cause of the problem – climate change driven by burning fossil fuels.

    At curent rates, atmospheric CO2 will be at twice the level it was at the start of the industrial revolution in only about 30 more years. It will be at triple the level by the close of this century. Do we want civilization to continue or not? That is the question.

    Any action that fails to actually reduce emission must be a lower priority. I suggest a Carbon tax with the proceeds allocated to:
    Political Buy in:
    1. Consumer rebate. Not an income tax reduction, but a rebate. Mail in your receipts, get the rebate. The rebate needs to be high enough to take some of the sting off forlow and middle income end users, but low enough so a strong incentive for reduction remains. 40% of the Carbon tax revenues?

    2. Deficit reduction. This gives the righties something and provides a way for any sane Republicans (if there any left) to back into dealing with climate change. 20% of the Carbon tax revenues?

    Emissions reduction:
    1. R & D. Yes, I know that there are existing technologies that will do the job if deployed sufficiently, but R & D is sexy and gives politician lots of opportunities for bold statements and ribbon cutting. 10% of the Carbon tax revenues??

    2. Clean Building Trust Fund. Aim to retrofit damn near every structure in the country for conservation and efficiency, with financing through low or no-interest loans. The length of time it will take to scale this up (5-10 years) allows the Trust Fund to accumulate to a significant enough amount. The employment spinoff is an obviously huge collateral benefit. This is the biggest GHG reductions for the buck. 30% of the Carbon tax revenues?

    A final point: the Carbon Tax will not be high enough when enacted into law to send the “market signal” strongly enough. That’s just political reality. So build in a escalator clause tied directly to the increase in atmospheric CO2. CO2 goes up 1 ppm, the tax increases $1.50. That will be about $5 per year. Direct, transparent, and easy to understand.

  8. Patti Santangelo
    Posted November 18, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    The oyster beds on the West Coast are now having problems because of the higher acidity of sea water. The Co2 absorbed by the oceans have increased the acid in the water. The baby oysters cannot create their shells properly and die. Some Washington State oyster growers have moved their beds to Hawaii where the water is not quite as acidic. This problem affects all sea life down to the food chain basics, like pteropods. I highly recommend the movie “A Sea Change” for more information. Another source http://oceanacidification.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/loss-of-pteropods-might-be-catastrophic/

  9. Posted November 19, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I question the wisdom of proposals for massive storm surge barriers for New York Harbor. The costs would be astronomic and, if funded, this would compete with other desperately needed infrastructure repair, upgrade, and replacement. Furthermore, unlike London where the narrow Thames estuary could effectively be barricaded off from the sea when necessary, New York Harbor is five miles wide between Sandy Hook and the Rockaways, and additional barriers would be required at Hell Gate Strait and Staten Island. These of course would in no way protect the rest of Long Island, New Jersey or Connecticut.
    Far preferable would be a combination of selective relocation/retreat in lower density shore communities, including vertical elevation of structures where feasible. For high density/high investment areas like the Financial District, subways, utilities, and below grade facilities (like the new 9/11 memorial) must be retrofitted to prevent flooding or be able to recover from it rapidly. Resilience must be the goal.

  10. Steve Erickson
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    As I understand it, the problem (at least for now) is that larvae are not surviving due to the increased acidity, so propagation has been moved to Hawaii, not culture of adult oysters. It certainly is a harbinger of what awaits, however.