A Faustian Dilemma
February 24, 2016
On February 24th another El Nino induced storm killed four people in the south before rocketing into New England. I lay in bed watching the lightning flash and listening to our chimney cover roar, when that happened it meant that the wind was gusting over 50 miles an hour. The storm was right on top of us. I wondered how the homeowners on Plum Island were doing.
A few days later I drove out with Geoffrey Day and Steve Moore to measure the erosion on North Point. To our surprise we found that very little erosion had occurred, because the peak of the storm arrived at low tide and the high tide had only been 8 feet, compared to the 11-foot tides we had been having in September.
But another reason that the storm had not caused very much damage was more counter intuitive. The storm had been so close that its waves never had a chance to build into long period waves so they were not high enough to break against the dunes. There was no sign that they had even splashed over the dune face.
Even though October’s storms had been over 500 miles away and their waves broke on a sunny windless day, they had been generated by the remnants of two powerful hurricanes and their waves had travelled so far they had had a chance to build into powerful damage causing long period waves.
It would be something worth remembering when NETCO presented its short-term solution to Newburyport. Mayor Holaday was faced with a dilemma of Faustian proportions. It might eventually have to pay its local share of the cost of installing a weir jetty. But if paid too much for a short-term solution it would have less to pay for the real, long-term solution. And if the Corps didn’t install the weir jetty the short-term solution would be a moot point anyway.
It might make more sense for the state to buy people out. It could even buy them out, but then lease the homes back to the homeowners so the state could make back some of the costs until the houses washed away. The state could also be eligible to receive reimbursement from the Federal Flood Insurance Program if it moved or demolished the homes before they were swept away. But it would make a lot more sense to just convince Congress to appropriate money to install the weir as soon as possible.
Accomplishing that strategy would rest on the shoulders of freshman Congressman Seth Moulton. But perhaps he could learn a lesson from Cape Cod Congressman Gerry Studds. In 1992, Studds attached an amendment to dredge Chatham onto a bill for a Fisheries Trade agreement with Estonia. Studds knew that President Bush senior would wanted to sign the bill because it would be the first US treaty made with a breakaway Republic of the Soviet Union. Who cared if there was a little pork attached?
But there was a ten-day pocket veto proviso on the bill and time was slipping away. Congress had passed the bill just before the election run between Bush’s and Bill Clinton. The Chatham fishing community watched as the election came and went. There was only two days left before the veto would go into effect.
Suddenly C-Span broke into its regular programming. The President and Mrs. Bush were returning from their defeat in Houston. Their helicopter loomed out of the mist, and hovered before settling down quietly on the South Lawn. The huge rotor continued to spin as the Mr. and Mrs. Bush appeared at the helicopter door. The White House staff cheered as the Bushes hurried into the side door of the house they had just lost.
A crowd of fishermen in the local bar sighed. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. There was no way the president would sign the bill just after returning from his titanic loss. In two days the bill would be dead. Chatham had lost again.
Thirty minutes later the telephone rang in one of the fishermen’s homes. It was Congressman Studds’ aide, “He signed it. The president just signed the bill. The ink’s still dry.”
So perhaps if Congressman Moulton could just attach a little amendment for Newburyport’s weir jetty to something like say, President Obama’s candidate for the Supreme Court, everything should work out just fine. But residents of Northern Reservation Terrace would have to see if their freshman Congressman had the political chops to pull off such a coup.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores and through Amazon.com.