Posted by: coastlinesproject | November 6, 2012

Sandy; Triage in the face of more frequent coastal storms.

Coastal Triage

On October 30th the United States awoke to a new reality. Another city had been devastated by a major storm and all of New Jersey’s barrier beach communities were underwater.

It was the third time in the last twenty years that this has happened. First it was Miami in 1992, then New Orleans in 2005, and now New York in 2012. It is clear that we are in a new climatic regime of more frequent major storms, though it is important to note that none of these storms were as large or as powerful as hurricanes can become.

We now have to make some big decisions about which cities and towns we can afford to save in the face of the rising seas and more frequent storms. The decision is pretty easy for New York. It is America’s most populous city and the financial capital of the world. It is also built on a platform of Palisades bedrock though too many of its subways were tunneled below sea level.

Governor Cuomo is already discussing the idea of building a storm surge barrier similar to the one that protects London. It would cost at least $10 Billion and take several years to complete, but in the infelicitous words of our time, New York is simply too big and too important to fail. In Boston we could do without two of their sports teams but that is a topic for a different time and place.

But what about the barrier beach communities of the beautiful Jersey Shore? There are built on narrow strips of sand only a few feet above sea level. Barrier beaches are almost like living beings. They must be able to move, pulsate, grow and retreat in order to stay healthy. They do this everyday, but we only become aware of it after a major storm after hundreds of feet of sand have been eroded off the front of the beach, washed over the island and then been dumped in the shallow bay behind. The beach has migrated several hundred feet closer to the mainland where it will reform so it can continue to function as a living barrier to protect the mainland from the next storm.

Geologists call this process “rollover” because the beach essentially rolls over itself under the influence of sea level rise. It does this not only in big steps after major storms, but in small steps everyday. We only notice the big steps but if the beach is to remain healthy it has to be able to take the small daily steps as well.

But neither of these things can happen if you build immovable structures like buildings, boardwalks, groins and seawalls on a barrier beach that is only twenty blocks wide. We saw the results as the ocean washed through the streets of Atlantic City, streets made famous by the popular game of Monopoly. But now it is our turn to make some astute decisions about whether we should put hotels and houses back on Boardwalk and Park Place.

The owners of these structures and the State of New Jersey will soon be eligible to receive two kinds of FEMA grants to restore their coastal communities. Mitigation grants provide home owners with tax supported money to rebuild their buildings on the same location as before, where they will  undoubtedly be whacked again by the next storm. Acquisition grants will provide the state with funds to pay homeowners fair market price for their buildings. It must then convert their land into parks and green spaces. These will then allow the beaches to move, retreat and grow as nature wants them to do.

The private owner can use his buyout money to do whatever he wants to do, whether it be sending his kid to college or moving to higher ground. Right now the amount of money designated for this “experimental” buyout program is much smaller than the amount of money designated for rebuilding.

Hopefully both the President and Congress will heed the lessons of Sandy and replenish the pot designated for buyouts. It is a common sense, permanent solution that both Democrats and Republicans should be able to support.

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William Sargent is a consultant for the NOVA science series and the award-winning author of three books about sea level rise. They include, Just Seconds From the Ocean; Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina, Storm Surge; A Coastal Village Battles the Rising Atlantic and Beach Wars; 10,000 Years on a Barrier Beach. They are available at local bookstores and through http://www.UPNE.com and www.strawberryhillpress.com.

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