Hurricane Sandy and sustainable solutions

November 21, 2012

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

During summer 1969, we spent two weeks in an oceanography workshop offered by the University of Delaware. A lecturer pointed out that the intensity of coastal storms would limit the success of any efforts to implement ocean farming techniques. Pollutants from urban areas, factories and farms were also a threat to the health of existing and future coastal food sources. He felt the only hope for protecting coastal food resources was the possibility that a large food firm would buy up existing rights to harvest shoreline and ocean resources.

A year later, we participated in a flora and fauna survey in the Hackensack Meadows to serve as a data base of what might be lost if the Meadows were filled in for urban development. A few years later, this nursery area for both fresh water and ocean life was reduced when the Meadowlands football stadium was built.

Efforts to limit developments along the coast have had limited success. The extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy would have been far less if development in vulnerable areas had been restrained.

When the greater Toronto area was hit by hurricane Hazel in the 1950s, massive flooding destroyed many homes built along flood-prone areas. Rather than rebuild the homes, the areas were converted to parklands for recreational and educational interests. Educational centers were established to create public awareness of the importance of wise conservation practices. For about 20 years, we and our colleagues offered weekend courses in Ontario at those educational centers.

In the case of Hurricane Sandy, a 2011 report by New York State warned of the potential for flooding a year earlier, and warned again this past September, according to writer Ritt Goldstein.

Goldstein goes on to quote comments by Professor Klaus Jacob that if last year’s Hurricane Irene had been a foot higher, subway tunnels would have been flooded, roads along the Hudson River turned into rivers and commuter rail systems would be out of service. Jacob estimated economic losses of $55 billion. Some recent estimates of the damage from Hurricane Sandy have approached $50 billion.

Many commentators have pointed to rising sea levels and the increased intensity of storms resulting from global warming as contributing factors to the substantial damage from the storm, and have called for reducing carbon consumption. Short-term actions such as raising the level of subway entrances and reinforcing the lower floors of buildings to enable them to withstand the power of the storms are also advocated.

Other techniques such as constructing a chain of sea barriers in the Long Island Sound and higher sea walls in vulnerable areas such as Manhattan, along with increased regulations on locating industrial and chemical plants are being suggested.

Greater reliance on tightened zoning laws to protect marshlands was also recommended, but rejected as being prohibitively expensive. Over the long run, wetland protection often proves to be the least costly and most beneficial solution.

An article by Tim Lister titled “Is Sandy a taste of things to come?” provides an excellent overview of the problems and possible solutions for New York.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Nov. 21-27, 2012, issue

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