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 happens it means that the wind is 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 went out to North Point to measure the erosion with Geoffrey Day and Steve Moore from the conservation commission. . To our surprise we found little erosion, 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 counterintuitive. 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 arrived 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. Her mayor, Donna Holaday was faced with a Faustian bargain. Eventually the city would have to pay its local share of for installing a weir in the jetty, the real, long term solution. But if it paid too much for the short-term solution it would have less to pay for the long-term solution. And if the Corps didn’t install the weir jetty the short-term solution wouldn’t last anyway.
It might make more sense for the city or state to buy people out. It could even buy their houses, then lease them back to the homeowners to recoup some of the costs until the houses eventually washed away. The city might also be able 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 if the state just convinced the Corps 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 Harbor onto a bill for a Fisheries Trade agreement with Estonia. Studds knew that President George Bush senior desperately 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 final election between Bush and Bill Clinton. Most of the Chatham fishing community watched at a local bar as the election came and went. There were now only two days 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 circled 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 entrance of the house they had just lost.
The crowd of recently unemployed fishermen groaned. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. There was no way the president would sign the bill just after returning from the biggest loss of his political life. The bill would be dead in two days. Chatham had lost again.
But thirty minutes later the telephone rang in Charlene Eldredge’s home. It was Congressman Studds’ aide, “He signed it. The president just signed the bill. The ink has even dried.”
So if Congressman Moulton could perhaps just attach a little amendment for Newburyport’s weir jetty to something like say, President Obama’s next selection 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.