The New Normal: A Post-Sandy Point of View

Tricia Jedele

A cottage teeters on the shore at Roy Carpenter's Beach in South Kingstown, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: NBC News 10

What do the 2010 March Floods, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Sandy all have in common? These three 100-year events (meaning there is a 1% chance of this type of storm happening once a year) have all occurred within the past two and half years.

Failing to change how we view significant storm events (e.g., it’s just a fluke), affects how well and whether we plan for future storm events. Viewing these storms as “just a bad run,” or “ a freak storm” denies the reality of a changing climate and its effect on weather, precipitation and the severity of storms. In this way, our point of view can threaten our ability to change our approach to development and planning in a way that preserves our assets for future generations. Ultimately this short-sighted point of view is used to justify an unwillingness to move away from static planning concepts, like planning for a 100-year flood, which, to be sure, allows for more development short-term, but, is of little use when planning the life expectancy of coastal development or construction already along our river banks and in our flood plains.

After the March 2010 floods submerged and disabled three major municipal sewer treatment facilities for more than a week, wiped out dams and bridges, destroyed homes and business built along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, and pushed massive areas of pavement up with surges of water from swollen rivers, and, after incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, what did we do? We left our sewer treatment facilities where they were; continued to plan for and permit development for 100-year storms; rebuilt the bridges; repaved the parking lots that were built within the flood plains of major rivers; talked about how we could get environmental regulations out of the way of job creation and economic development, and; tried to get back to normal.

We did the same after Hurricane Irene (a category 1 storm that left half of state’s residents without power, many for more than a week, and which resulted mandatory evacuations for low-lying communities including Charlestown, Narragansett, South Kingstown, and Westerly over storm-surge related concerns. We fixed the roofs, removed the trees, restored power, and petitioned the coastal management agency for the construction of 202 foot seawall (price tag, about a million dollars) in Matunuck to guard against storm surge and erosion.

The goal always the same:  just try to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

Piles of sand plowed from Matunuck Beach Road, South Kingstown, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: NBC News 10

In the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Sandy, our third major storm event in less than three years, and a storm that resulted in more serious damage in some of our coastal communities than was experienced during the Hurricane of 1938 (portions of the seawall in Narragansett dislodged; homes and businesses shattered all along the coast; infrastructure, like the bath house and boardwalk in Galilee, washed away; mounds of sand covering roads throughout South County, and breakers compromised) — maybe we should start asking ourselves, “What is normal?”

Because to “get back to normal” under a planning regime and system-wide frame of mind that does not understand, appropriately consider, or strategically plan for the effects of climate change on our coastline, our natural resources, our communities and our economy; well, that is not  “normal” at all. If all we’ve learned as a result of these past three storms is to get milk and water, buy a generator, install a sump pump, get flood insurance, trim down branches and trees that might fall on power lines; and bring in more line and more contractors to assist with power outages, then we haven’t really learned anything at all.

Does it makes sense to rebuild infrastructure, at a significant cost to the taxpayers, in areas that we know will continue to be vulnerable? Should we seize the opportunity to undo a past planning decision that undermined the ability of a natural system to absorb flooding or protect against storm surge and erosion, like removing parking lots that were paved over marshes, and wetlands, or removing hard shoreline structures that accelerate erosion along the beaches? Should we be planning for 500-year or 1,000 floods (the Netherlands and Japan protect their residents against a 10,000-year flood)?

We cannot continue to plan and build according to standards that don’t contemplate climate change and its effects on our built and natural environment. Ignoring the policy and economic conversations that need to happen about the costs of coastal protection versus costs of land-use relocation as well as the potential for movement of populations and infrastructure is irresponsible and will come at a great price.

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