(Appeared in print as "The writing's on the sea wall")
The year is drawing to a close, but Superstorm Sandy still is producing stories and pictures of damage and recovery. But as devastating as the destruction has been, many families intend to rebuild their homes in the same place.
The final costs of Superstorm Sandy remain to be seen, but the costs associated with damaged fire stations in the tri-state already is high. Fire departments are struggling to provide emergency services, while their members try to rebuild their own homes and lives. They have a long road ahead of them — and could face such devastation again in the near future.
Headlines show that global climate change is becoming a way of life. Monster snowstorms, superstorms, hurricanes and other natural disasters are increasing in strength and striking in more densely populated areas of the country.
The U.S. has more than 12,000 miles of coastline, and 53% of all Americans live in and around coastal cities and towns. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that five of the top 10 global cities with populations over one million that are vulnerable to coastal flooding are in the U.S.: Miami; greater New York; New Orleans; Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Virginia Beach, Va.
According to Architecture 2030, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to reducing climate-changing gases, a 1-meter rise in sea level could cause calamitous and destabilizing consequences. Organization founder Edward Mazria wrote that the difference between a storm surge and sea-level rise is that the former is temporary and the latter is permanent. Cities can rebuild after a severe storm, because the water eventually will drain and leave dry land. A rise in sea level will force people to “either abandon the area or, if it’s extremely valuable territory, then you [can] expend up to tens of billions of dollars to protect it with sea walls and other measures,” he wrote.
The Texas Observer in 2007 published a map depicting the devastation a 1- to 2-meter rise in sea level rise would cause in Galveston. On Sept. 12, 2008, the sea level rose more than three meters and flooded significant portions of Galveston.
Hurricane Sandy delivered a 9-foot surge in New York City. If such a large surge hit Florida, cities like Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Key West would be underwater completely. Restoring the infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewers and more — would take a lot of time and money, and would devastate local economies. Emergency responders would be overwhelmed at best.
But what should citizens and communities do: abandon the properties and move further inland, or rebuild to weather future storms? Americans are a resilient lot, as witnessed in Galveston, New Orleans and now New York. However, emergency services must ready themselves for more-frequent major disasters by not only preparing their own agencies but teaching preparedness in their communities.
Hurricane Katrina taught many hard lessons, but not everyone heeded the message. For example, many in New York and New Jersey ignored warnings to evacuate until it was too late.
I’m not convinced about global warning, but the warnings for emergency responders are clear.
P.S.: We here at FIRE CHIEF would like to thank you for your readership and wish you and your family Happy Holidays and a safe and healthy New Year!