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Storm Warning

Posted on 27 August 2009

By Karl Grossman

We dodged another hurricane bullet last weekend—Hurricane Bill veered to the northeast and missed Long Island. But sooner or later, we’ll be hit again—and by a big hurricane. We’re due.

Long Island stands to suffer major, potentially catastrophic damage. Construction has boomed along the coastline for years, unmindful of the inevitable consequences of building in the teeth of the ocean. As to the threat of sea-level rise caused by global warming, Long Island and much of the world remain asleep.

It looked for a time that Bill might head for Long Island. A LIPA spokesman said Bill “could significantly impact Long Island….We have to let the storm run its track.” Luckily, a front moving from the west nudged Bill eastward.

LIPA and emergency management agencies of the state, Suffolk and Nassau Counties conducted a Hurricane Preparedness Drill. “Our greatest defense…is to be prepared,” said LIPA President Kevin Law.

But in a broader sense, are we prepared or, in fact, heading in the other direction?

 “Liquid Assets, Seaside Homes for Those Who Love The Shore,” was a recent headline in the real estate section of Newsday focusing on the “shameless love affair between Long Islanders and our ocean beaches…For some, these weekend flings will never be enough: Some need to commit. To make a life together. To possess.” The two-page spread featured a collection of available seafront houses including a $2.35 million number in Westhampton Beach. “Like our own personal red carpet,” it comes with a “private boardwalk” that “stretches…50 feet…through the dunes, all the way down to the sandy shore.” Very nice, but how will it do when the next hurricane strikes?

The Hurricane of ’38 wiped out virtually every house from the Westhampton Beach barrier beach, now relined with many more and bigger structures.

Amid the vested interests in the U.S., beach house homeowners have been highly active. There’s an organization called the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association which this year named Fire Island the winner of its Best Restored Beach Award. Fire Island was cited for a program of dumping sand on its beaches. The sand is sure to last—until the next big storm.

The organization’s website (www.asbpa.org) describes it as “active in persuading the Congress to enact legislation authorizing federal sharing of the cost” of coastal sand-dumping, which it prefers to call “beach nourishment.”

Through malleable members of Congress, this group, and similar ones, have gotten taxpayer dollars—billions of them—spent to try to protect beach houses from the ravages of the sea.

Its website speaks of its “outrage” when the White House Office of Management and Budget recently “pulled funding” from a variety of Army Corps of Engineers seaside sand-dumping projects. “The projects on the Corps’ list were shovel-ready,” it declared. It said in 2007 “beaches contributed $322 billion to America’s economy…At a time of economic recession, the beach is an even more desirable and affordable…This is not the time for the federal government to abandon coastal communities.”

Beach house interests—with political contributions—will try to get Congress to overturn the Office of Management and Budget’s sensible effort to restrain taxpayer-supported shoreline sand-dumping.

Meanwhile, there is global warming. “Three key facts about rising sea levels need to be hammered home to the world’s politicians and planners: sea-level rise is now inevitable” and “will happen faster than most of us thought,” said the respected British publication, New Scientist, in an editorial last month. “Even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, the oceans will continue to swell…as glaciers and ice sheets melt.” 

 “None of this means we should despair and stop trying to curb emissions,” said the New Scientist. But “alongside these efforts…we must stop building in the danger zone.” It cited the “countless billions” now being spent worldwide on “constructing homes, offices, factories…in vulnerable coastal areas…If we want to build a lasting legacy for our descendants, we should do so on the plentiful land that is in no danger from the sea.” 

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