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An Orderly Retreat

An Orderly Retreat

Office buildings, houses, roads, factories, power systems and cities are  products of men and women’s sweat and creativity; the physical supports for our survival and comfort are condensed human time and effort which are entitled to respect and protection. So it’s with sadness that I must extend to the entire low-lying East Coast what two earlier posts opined about New Orleans; that global warming’s rising seas and more powerful storms compel retreats from America’s most vulnerable coastal areas.

Hurricane Sandy’s havoc has upgraded discussion of what should be done to protect against storm-disaster repeats. For New York Harbor, there is talk of three clam-like gates that, when closed at the approach of a storm, would become 30-foot-high walls protecting the harbor and surrounding development from storms. The barriers would cost tens of billions of dollars and take years to construct, and whether successive Congresses or state legislatures would appropriate enough is speculative. Coastal areas near but outside the  barriers could experience higher floods because the metal dams would deflect storm surge waters, not absorb them.  Politically, those flood-exposed voters might join inland citizens to block sufficient public financing.

The Netherlands has decades of successful experience maintaining complex dike systems which have protected its people against rising, angry seas. Much of Rotterdam, a vibrant port city, is lower than sea level, and is kept dry by an array of dikes and pumps. Dutch experience with controlling seas will help the United States, but what has worked in that small, densely-populated country cannot be duplicated for all of America’s long, low Gulf and Atlantic coastlines.   I attach a link to a TED talk  by Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground in which he estimated the results of a hurricane more powerful than Sandy hitting New York City, and the odds of other extreme U.S. weather events in the next 30 years.  Choices must be made.

I submit that the best strategy is planned withdrawal from our most vulnerable coast areas. Most beach structures which Sandy destroyed should not be rebuilt, and if private landowners insist, they should rebuild without government loans or guarantees. Instead we should invest to save coastal cities with the highest concentrations of people and financial capital, such as  New York Harbor, even though the costs of movable storm barriers are huge and their success uncertain.  For the rest of the East and Gulf coasts, the marching order should be less development on land vulnerable to storm and flood in a changing climate, and deliberate, speedy migration to higher ground.

Comments from our earlier posts on New Orleans are avaliable here: New Orleans: A Strategic Retreat? and A Graceful Retreat.



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