Ideas for Building Resilient Communities After Hurricane Sandy

In his blog, "Are Hurricanes Our Next Dust Bowl?", Thomas Fisher talks about what resiliance to future climate change-induced distasters will look like.

He compares the measures used to resolve the 1930s Dust Bowl (an excellent must-watch PBS documentary) with those needed to protect us from superstorms like Hurricane Sandy.

Here are some excerpts:

Both Hurricane Sandy and the Dust Bowl were man-made disasters. Excessive wheat-crop production and poor tilling practices in the 1920s and early 1930s led to the loss of topsoil when drought arrived soon after the start of the Great Depression. Farmers plowing under so much of the prairie made the Dust Bowl almost inevitable.

Only when the Federal government stepped in to return large areas of land back to protected grassland, to hire people to plant hundreds of miles of windbreaks, and to educate farmers about how to till their fields in more sustainable ways did the Dust Bowl end. We created what many still view as the worst environmental disaster in American history, and we responded to it by returning much of the landscape to its natural state.

Hurricane Sandy holds similar lessons. Increased development along low-lying coastal areas increased the number of buildings destroyed, people displaced, and lives disrupted by wind, flooding, and fire.

Just as prairie grass proved essential in keeping the soil of the southern plains from blowing away, the reefs, wetlands, and sandbars long the eastern and southern coasts of the U.S. play a role in buffering the effects of storms that we would do well to restore. 

The idea of building a $6 billion sea barrier at the mouth of New York’s harbor represents the very thing we should not do. It will waste money and may even make the effects of future storms worse. It won’t stop tidal surges and flooding that can affect New York City from other directions — from Long Island Sound, for example, as happened during Hurricane Sandy. A surge barrier also won’t do anything to protect all of the coastal development outside of it, which is where most of the damage from Hurricane Sandy occurred. Nor will it prevent the flooding that will occur as a result of an overall rise in sea levels, which will inundate low-lying areas regardless of what else we do.

Extensive, interconnected systems, however carefully designed, will always remain vulnerable to failure; we can never stop falling limbs from bringing down electrical lines or tidal surges from flooding sewer systems or severing gas lines. The only real protection from such events will come with a dramatic dispersal of our infrastructure to the scale of individual structures or small clusters of buildings. The more every property or community along our coasts can generate its own power, store its own water, and serve to some extent as its own utility, the more we will prevent the large-scale catastrophes and extremely expensive disasters that have resulted from two hurricanes less than a decade apart.

Hurricane Sandy should also prompt a rethinking of how and where we live along our eastern and southern coasts. I live and work in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where almost all of the shoreline along their many lakes, creeks and rivers remains in public ownership, providing one of the largest systems of linked open space in any city in the world. First proposed by the 19th Century landscape architect, H.W.S. Cleveland, these waterfront parks arose in part as a way of protecting private property from flooding and they have had the additional benefit of enhancing the value of that property that faced the publicly owned shores. Our coastal areas would do well to consider such a model.

As a former and long-time resident of Connecticut, where almost all the shoreline remains in private hands, I know the strength of property owners’ attachment to living along the water. And I can just imagine the resistance to and expense of an enactment of eminent domain to return of America’s low-lying coastline to public open space as a buffer against rising sea levels and storm surges. In an era so suspicious of government over-reach, it seems unlikely that such a taking of private property for the public good — however justified — will ever happen.

It may happen organically, though. The insurance industry, alone, could significantly change the location and kind of development along exposed coastlines by either refusing to insure property or making it so expensive that few could afford to rebuild there. Local governments, too, could have an effect depending upon how much they reflect in their property assessments and planning policies the cost of protecting and responding to properties vulnerable to catastrophic events. Such financial impacts would almost inevitably lead property owners toward more resilient ways of living along the water.

We ended the Dust Bowl by returning much of the landscape back to its native state and changing how we treated the land we continue to occupy. And we will end disasters like Hurricane Sandy the same way: taking as much of our coastline as possible back to its pre-settlement state as the least expensive way of protecting ourselves from a future of super storms, and rebuilding the rest in as resilient — as temporary or as indestructible — a way possible, with those living in harms way having to pay much more for public services as a result of that choice. It may not sound like a "Marshall Plan," but it may be the only plan that, in the end, works.


Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota and author of Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design.

Read his full blog:

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