Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Response: We Will Rebuild!

Nobody likes a coward. We want our leaders to be resolute when we’re threatened.
We think of the classic example, when all seemed lost after Dunkirk in 1940. Who would not have been stirred by Churchill’s defiance?  “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….”

And in the same vein, who can blame the governors of New York and New Jersey for their bravado after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy?

"Working together,” said New York’s Andrew Cuomo, “we will rebuild stronger and better than ever before, so New York is better prepared and has the infrastructure in place to handle future major weather incidents."

In New Jersey, Chris Christie was no less optimistic: "I'm confident we can rebuild, that we will rebuild, and we'll rebuild together."

Not surprisingly, both governors’ approval ratings have soared. Never surrender; never retreat. We love this stuff.

Court Square Station in Queens as flooding started
But Wednesday evening, I squeezed into a packed hall at NYU to listen to some of New York’s leading experts – climate scientists, meteorologists, sociologists, public health experts and more – reflect on city planning in the post-Sandy era. They all agreed on one thing: When sea levels are rising, only fools refuse to retreat.

Among the experts was Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist with a 40-year career at Columbia University, and a leading New York City advisor regarding the impacts of climate change.  For the last decade, Jacob has warned anyone willing to listen about New York’s vulnerability to climate change.  In 2011, he predicted in a major New York state report that a “100-year storm” – almost exactly what Sandy turned out to be – would flood the subway system in about forty minutes; all major tunnels would be flooded in about an hour; and costs would total about $58 billion.

It’s uncanny how accurate Jacob’s 2011 report was.  Early estimates have put the bill for Sandy at $52 billion, and the number is climbing.

86th Street Station in Manhattan
But Dr. Jacob has a much more sober warning for us. “100-year storms” hit us infrequently; in any year, there’s about a 1% chance that one will strike. On average, that’s one per century, let’s say. But add 2-4 feet of sea level rise, which Jacob and New York’s ClimAID researchers are projecting this century, and the same flooding will occur every 3 to 10 years, he told the NYU audience Wednesday evening.

“You can’t have the whole system being shut down once a decade,” said Jacob a year ago. “What’s important is that we’re vulnerable right now to the 100-year storm. After 40 minutes of rain the entire subway system could be underwater.”

You heard that right. Before we ever heard of Sandy, Jacob was predicting that sea-level rise will give us one of these events every decade on the high side. On the low side? One Sandy-like flood every three years.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Hurricane Sandy
Now, a year ago, some of us would have said Jacob was simply making scientific projections, an exercise often ridiculed by climate skeptics. Hurricane Irene had hit us pretty hard. Many people thought it might be related to climate change. But the climate discussion was still hostage to our national game of political football, and few people really listened. After Hurricane Sandy, NPR host Steve Curwood asked him in a radio interview if this was finally the wake-up call the city – and the country – needed to begin to seriously plan for the ravages of climate change.

“Last year’s [Hurricane] Irene should have been the wake-up call,” answered Jacob. “And then we should have gotten into action. So this is the second wake-up call… how many wake-up calls do we need?”

So let’s say we’ve wakened up. What should we do? I have one suggestion for starters: Before we join the cheering section for the rebuilding of communities in the path of the rising seas, let’s acknowledge that we are fundamentally changing the earth, for ourselves and for distant – and comparatively innocent – people. You may be able to imagine Fortress New York. But no one’s seriously talking about Fortress Bangladesh.

Building seawalls around our threatened cities is probably unwise. But continuing on our carbon binge from inside climate fortresses raises fundamental questions of justice for anyone attuned to the call to care for God’s creation, and for his most vulnerable children.

If you’d like to make your voice about creation care heard in Congress, feel free to copy and edit this letter, and send it to your congressional representatives by clicking here.  And consider adding one message: Please don’t lure people back into harm’s way by promising to rebuild in places from which we should be thoughtfully retreating.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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