By Karl Grossman
What an ordeal we’ve all been through!
As I write this, on Sunday, electricity is still out to a huge number of homes and businesses in Suffolk County — and out, too, for many, many people in neighboring Nassau, New York City, indeed in a large part of the U.S. The lines that snake for gasoline are unprecedented, way beyond the situation during the “oil crisis” of 1973-1974.
What, at this early stage, might be considered some of the “lessons learned” from Hurricane Sandy? Foremost, the “Frankenstorm” has provided a big lesson on the awesome power of nature in its fury. It demonstrated the folly of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to dump sand along ocean beaches to supposedly “fortify” them, so-called “beach replenishment.”
In one fell swoop, sand dumped on the affected Mid-Atlantic coastline was washed away.
Bloomberg Businessweek put Sandy on its cover with the headline, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” It brought climate change and global warming home violently.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was asked at a press conference last week about whether, in view of global warming and the greater frequency of major storms, Suffolk needs to change land-use policies. “I think what you say is correct. It’s something to think about when power is restored,” he responded. It is, indeed, something to “think about” — and, more importantly, nations taking action to significantly reduce the burning of fossil fuels which is heating up this planet.
As Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of physics at City University of New York, commented: “Hurricane Sandy’s the hurricane from hell. It broke all records…Is this related to global warming? First, there is no smoking gun, no conclusive evidence…However, the signs are not good. Second, global warming is heating up the…waters, and warm water is the basic energy source driving a hurricane….So global warming is actually the weather on steroids. This is consistent with the 100 year floods, 100 year forest fires, 100 year droughts that we seem to have every few years. So is this the new normal? We cannot say with certainty, but a case can be made that this wacky weather is, in part, driven by global warming.”
And, yes, land-use policies on the coast need to change — especially the use of tax dollars “encouraging people to live in harm’s way,” as the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, put it in a statement last week. “The storm should heighten awareness about the dangers of federal policies that encourage development in risk-prone areas,” said R Street. “Key among these is the National Flood Insurance Program which is expected to pick up as much as half of the $20 billion in economic losses Sandy is projected to produce. The 44-year-old NFIP is the federal government’s second largest fiscal liability, behind only Social Security, with taxpayers on the hook for the program’s $1.25 trillion of coverage.”
Private insurance companies are reluctant to insure houses built on shifting sands in the teeth of the ocean, so the U.S. government — under enormous pressure of the beachfront homeowner lobby — filled in with our tax dollars.
Then there’s the Army Corps of Engineers and beachfront homeowners forever pushing for sand-dumping or “beach replenishment.” As Eli Lehrer, R Street’s president, said in a media conference call in which I participated last week: “I would say the ideal federal percentage for ‘beach replenishment’ is zero.”
Barrier beaches such as those along Suffolk’s south shore need to move with nature — for reasons including protecting the mainland — and not be tailored to suit real estate interests. Long Islanders until “modern” times wouldn’t dream of building on barrier beaches.
Then there’s undergrounding of electric lines. In 1991, East Hampton Natural Resources Director Larry Penny called for undergrounding the lines running between Amagansett and Montauk, along the eight-mile Napeague stretch. Many of the poles holding them had gone down that year in Hurricane Bob and the “Perfect Storm.” The Long Island Lighting Company agreed to his request. Although the Napeague stretch was severely battered by Sandy, electricity in most of Montauk stayed on. “They say undergrounding is expensive,” said Mr. Penny last week. “But in the long run, you save a lot of money in tree-trimming, repairs after a storm and economic disruption — the power doesn’t go out.”
And Sandy underlined a lethal threat involving nuclear power plants on the coast. It impacted several including Oyster Creek in New Jersey where the storm surge nearly overwhelmed critical cooling systems including one maintaining its pool of thousands of hotly radioactive spent fuel rods. Oyster Creek is 90 miles southwest of Suffolk. Could a future “superstorm” set off an American Fukushima-like disaster?