Rebuild or Retreat

Should climate change force us to give up on living in coastal areas?

  • As the New York Times reported in 2012, taxpayers have spent $80 million since 1979 reconstructing houses and bridges on tiny Dauphin Island in Alabama, even though the island gets hit by hurricanes roughly every three years.
    Photo courtesy of Adobestock / Leonard Zhukowsky
  • Most scientific modeling suggests that while run-of-the-mill hurricanes may not become more common in coming years, climate change will spawn ultra-destructive super-storms more frequently. Add giant storms to higher sea levels and it appears that Sandy represents not an isolated disaster, but an early salvo in climate change’s assault on our coastlines.
    Photo courtesy of Adobestock / Sergey

In May 2012, my girlfriend Elise and I ventured out for the first time to the Rockaways, the narrow finger of beach that stands like a bodyguard between New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. The water was still too cold for swimming, but the spring day was warm enough to justify soggy paper cups of lemon-flavored shaved ice, which melted down our wrists as we wandered along the iconic boardwalk. As surfers skated across gentle rollers and shorebirds scurried in the wash, we voiced our delight and disbelief: How could such a serene and lovely place exist in the same city as Midtown Manhattan?

We didn’t return to the Rockaways until mid-November, and the scene then could not have been more different: Instead of strolling along the boardwalk, we found ourselves excavating ruined chunks of it from people’s front yards. The peninsula, of course, had borne the brunt of “Superstorm Sandy,” and three weeks later the area remained devastated, its residents forced to contend with no power, no heat, and, most ignominiously, Long Island’s sewage. Currents carried the effluent from Nassau County’s damaged treatment plants right past Rockaway Beach. The situation was so bad that Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian group that typically operates in chronically distressed countries like Haiti and Sierra Leone, showed up on American soil for the first time to rescue elderly people trapped in their apartments. For three weeks, the chorus from the neglected barrier island had been some variation of “Where’s the help?!”– with an expletive usually inserted between the second and third words, this being Queens.

While Elise and I, on our return visit, expected a near anarchic hinterland– the Free Republic of the Rockaways, as New York Magazine put it– the reality turned out to be more complex, though not necessarily less dire. The cavalry had arrived, even if it was unforgivably slow in coming. Dump trucks and heavy machinery bearing the insignia of the Department of Sanitation scooped up mountains of rubble from the streets. Electricians in the baskets of cherry pickers disentangled snarled power lines every third block. And vast armies of volunteers, from the Occupy Sandy movement to Seventh-Day Adventists to Bill Clinton, had come to pick up garbage and dispense supplies.

 Even as the power blinked back on and the mangled cars vanished from the sidewalks, the Rockaways still faced a challenge that seemed truly intractable: the vast drifts of sand that the storm surge had lifted off the beach and dumped in the basements and yards of hundreds of oceanfront homes. We found one such house easily enough, guided by a square of plywood, propped against a nest of ruined bicycles, with the words “Help Needed” scrawled in green marker across its face. In the dank basement, a trio of Occupy Sandy volunteers stripped busted pipes and shoveled away the last of the sand. “Finally hit solid ground yesterday morning,” grunted a volunteer named Ryan as she emerged up the concrete stairs, her face smudged with grit, “and it was like, thank God– there is a floor!”

In the front yard of the home, the sand situation was still critical. Towering wet berms of the stuff had been hurled up against the house next door, blocking its owners from getting inside. For three hours we hacked away at the drifts with shovels, relocating hundreds of pounds of sand from the smothered yard to the curb for Sanitation to haul away. Our efforts felt as much archaeological as restorative: entombed within the huge dunes was the detritus of dozens of lives, artifacts that Sandy had swept from roads and beaches and deposited here, just west of 90th  Street, just north of Shore Front Parkway. Our shovels overturned the bricks of a patio, shards of chimneys, strips of siding, butterfly nets. A faded photo of two boys on a seesaw, squinting at the camera in bright morning light. Sections of steel pipes, light fixtures, a toy horse, the inevitable condom. “At least somebody’s using ’em,” quipped a volunteer named Meredith.

Roving gangs of hipster videographers dressed in flannel jackets and fur-lined hoods sidled up and furtively shot video as we shoveled. A workman in a hard hat, who had driven four days from Denver to help turn the gas back on, strolled over and snapped a few pictures. A film crew from the Red Cross shot some tape and then asked us, please, would we mind taking a break from our work to just sign these release forms allowing them to use the footage in halftime commercials that would air during Thanksgiving football games? Just sign here ... and here ... and on the reverse side, right here.

1/18/2019 8:30:07 AM

In the long term these properties will be flooded at high tides regularly even without storms. It makes sense only to move away. I think we should not use the word "retreat" since it is a loaded term that sets off some people into defensive negative reactions. We should say "move inland" or "move back" instead which is a neutral term and not a red flag.

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