Sandy in New England: We Can and Must Change The Pattern of Loss


At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity are rongly in evidence in New England. Credit: Block Island Times.

Each of us personally experienced in some way Superstorm Sandy slamming into our communities all along the East Coast. For many of us, the destruction has been widespread and severe and will be long-lasting. In New England, our neighbors in Rhode Island and Connecticut have been dealt a particularly devastating blow.

It has been encouraging to see communities coming together to help those in need, neighbors helping neighbors. Resources are being devoted efficiently to alleviate human suffering and to mitigate economic and ecological harm. At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity, and can-do attitude, that are noble and exhilarating elements of  American society are still robust, and strongly in evidence in New England.

We are also a prudent nation, and New Englanders – conditioned by harsh winters and stony soils – have long been among the most pragmatic of Americans. We watch the weather carefully (remember the Farmer’s Almanac?) and we adapt as necessary. As Robert Frost noted, we mend stone walls, both for the sake of better functioning walls and for stronger communities. We try hard to see things clearly. And we respond with a town meeting-inspired desire to promote the general public good, with as much wisdom as we can muster.

With that perspective in mind, let’s be clear: Our climate has changed, and will change further, in ways that only encourage extreme storm activity. (Insurance companies believe this because they look at the evidence objectively – we should be just as prudent.) Furthermore, we have built more and more infrastructure in increasingly perilous places, and we have less and less money to repair and replace it. It is imperative that we start re-planning our coastal and other vulnerable zones and re-building infrastructure in them for greater resiliency, expecting more extreme weather in the future. Doing otherwise would be reckless.

Over the last four decades, the number of tropical storms that are big enough to be named has tripled. Hurricane Sandy is the 19th such storm this year alone. With a month to go before the end of the so-called hurricane season, a season which itself now starts earlier and ends later than it did four decades ago, it’s possible we will run out of letters of the alphabet before we run out the season.

Higher sea levels, warmer ocean temperatures, and ice melt off Greenland – all were factors that made this storm a “Frankenstorm.” The literary reference is not accidental, either: in significant part we made this storm ourselves, by failing to dramatically reduce climate emissions. (For more on this, see this roundup of CLF stories on climate change and Sandy, on the implications for our economy and insurance, as well as here, here and here for information on hurricanes and climate science.)

While it is true that climate change and increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are not the sole cause of this specific hurricane, they are certainly the root cause. To borrow a line from Dave Roberts at Grist, the direct cause of the pain in my knees after I run on any specific afternoon may not be the fact that I am over 50, but my advancing age certainly has the most to do with that pain. That you cannot rationally deny.

So as we help our neighbors to clean out a flooded basement or garage, as we help to clear away debris or rebuild a wall, we must also think about what we can do to change the conditions that have made these 100-year storms an almost annual event. To simplify the problem, ask yourself:

  • What is it that you can do individually to reduce our collective contribution to the root cause?
  • Can you reduce the amount of energy you use at home?
  • Can you take public transit or car pool to avoid driving alone to work?
  • Can you contact your state representative or senator, your Governor, your Congresswoman or Senator and urge them to take some action to reduce our dependence on expensive and unfriendly fuel sources or develop an actual energy plan for our country?

In addition to all of this, we must to adapt to the changes that clearly are already underway. This is an economic imperative:  there isn’t enough money in our entire economy to keep rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, sewage treatment plants, airports, energy systems, buildings and homes where and as they currently exist.

We must improve the resiliency of our coastal zones, for starters. We’ve all seen the images: homes in Rhode Island reclaimed by the sea, seawalls in Massachusetts moved by the waves, and once dry neighborhoods turned into wetlands overnight. That’s only the destruction we can see: imagine what the seabed looks like following all of the sewage overflows, all of the debris from homes and industrial yards, and all of the traps and equipment lost by fishermen, lobstermen and boaters.

Too little attention has been paid to the state of our coastal zones, and how likely they are to ride out major storms – and storm surges – in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.  We’re throwing money at maintaining public infrastructure out of habit, and in some cases we might just as well dump cash into the ocean. And risks to private property – if it’s insured we’re all sharing the costs one way or another. How long can we sustain that?  In the tradition of a New England town meeting – where a community really decides how to spend its resources, for the benefit (and cost) of current and future generations – we need to start a serious conversation about what we’re going to invest in and why.

And let’s recall that a year ago – in the wake of Irene – it was flooding in Vermont, and western Massachusetts and Connecticut that presented these questions. All of the parts of New England that are sensitive to our changing climate need our attention: we need to make decisions now that will reduce costs and enhance the quality of our lives and our environment, for generations to come.

Now is the time. Now, more than ever before, our region needs to plan and act to reduce the impacts of these storms, as well as their frequency. CLF has been working on these issues for decades. Now, we will redouble our efforts. I hope you’ll join us in doing just that.

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