Posted on November 26, 2012 by Michael Rodburg
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction of the Jersey Shore is that some people were taken by surprise. For decades, a central focus of coastal zone management and waterfront development restrictions has been to protect the fragile and shifting barrier islands, wetlands, and estuaries of the 130 miles of New Jersey at the intersection of land and ocean. New Jersey’s Coastal Areas Facilities Review Act and its Waterfront Development Act contain among the toughest limitations in the nation to control growth and development and protect an environmentally sensitive ecosystem. Over the decades, thousands and thousands of decisions have been made by legions of bureaucrats on projects big and small regarding application of land use regulations and the terms of permits and other approvals intended to preserve dunes, reduce beach erosion, prevent flooding and avoid loss of life and property as well as protect the environment. Sandy seems to have made a mockery of the effort in the blink of an eye.
Sandy was not a black swan event—something heretofore not even contemplated and hence, unforeseeable. The USGS modelers and their European counterparts had it right almost from the beginning. Scientists have modeled not only storm tracking itself with better and better forecasts and therefore more warnings, but even the severity and effects of storm events. These models have predicted the height and location of the storm surges and the resulting erosion and flooding with reasonable accuracy. Plug in the real time coordinates and other data, and the models told us that the waves would attack the dunes and erode them back into the sea; that storm surge would carry the sand inland and that inundation would occur once the beach and dunes had surrendered to the sea and storm.
In Sandy’s immediate aftermath, two related themes have emerged to justify rebuilding in place. Many have advocated continuing business as usual; after all, if this was the storm of the millennium, we have a thousand years before we have to worry about a similar event occurring again. Others have suggested that by undertaking protective measures, we humans are still capable of living anywhere we choose. We just need bigger and better sea walls, flood gates, and other barriers; let the engineers figure it all out. Eventually, however, these views will inform a more deliberate discussion about our ability to adapt to changing climate conditions—how and where shall we choose to confront Nature and how and where will we let her do as she is wont to do. With billions of dollars at stake, this debate will get contentious, to be sure. Climate change and weather volatility will not be easily accommodated. The role of government in the process—as regulator, facilitator, first responder and insurer of last resort—will come under review. The two character Chinese pictograph for the word “crisis” consists of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” The crisis that is Sandy should remind us that we should not squander the opportunity to rethink our priorities and arrive at a better way to confront this danger in the future.