30 August 2011

Irene on the Beach

There is a ton of talk about how human activities affect aspects of nature. Global warming is a contentions issue, perhaps it shouldn't be but some minds are hard to change. It is undeniable that ocean surface temperatures have been on the upswing for the better part of two decades and it is well know that ocean surface temperature is an important carburetor for extreme tropical weather. I will not attempt to make assumptions about why ocean temperatures have risen. Even global warming science is uncertain about all the causes and the magnitudes of difference each makes. There is a separate, indisputably human contribution to the devastation wrought by tropical cyclones which we are not working hard enough to mitigate and in many ways are actually making worse: over-development of the coast. 

The first solution is the most obvious and is a lesson I picked up pretty quickly living in flood-prone Wichita, Kansas. Simply, stop building houses where nature is volatile, i.e. flood plains and low lying coasts. Around Halloween 1998 it rained a lot in Kansas. I remember trick-or-treating in the rain for the first time in our new, more affluent neighborhood. My dad was not terribly keen on us staying out so long but I heard rumors that people who live in big houses give out bigger candy bars too. In the end I think I ended up not with bigger but perhaps more candy simply because as the few families roaming the streets for sweets, we were rewarded in spades for our bravery (read foolhardiness). The real treat would come the next day. We didn't have to go to church! Now, if you know anything about my Catholic parents, which you probably don't, you know they would not miss Sunday Mass for hell or high water. However, when the water is high enough to flow OVER the bridges of the Cow Skin Creek (a small tributary of the Arkansas River) locking us into our subdivision, a single exception can be made. 

"Well we can go on Monday to make up for it."

Lots of houses along the creek were destroyed in part because the Cow Skin is a creek in name only. It's actually part of a well established flood plain. The flood plain in Wichita is so volatile that a canal was dug at what was once the western edge of the city. On an ordinary day there is naught but a trickle. After a big rain however, the Wichita-Valley Center Floodway (aka The Big Ditch) actually has more water and a faster current than the 1,469 mile Arkansas. 

The city of Wichita has since spent a ton of money buying people out of their homes to widen and deepen parts of the creek in order to ease flooding and it has been a mostly well executed and well received project. I for one, got a kick out of the massive digs and walls that were built around the creek over the years. I felt like I was witnessing the Midwest's answer to the Aqueducts. I couldn't help but wonder though, why are we buying people out of the homes they built directly in harm's way? Why did we allow development so close to this time bomb of a creek? 

To put things simply, we would see a lot less damage from these kinds of storms if we would stop putting things directly in front of them. The evacuation zone on Staten Island (where I was nervously riding out the storm) saw significantly less damage than the same areas in Manhattan despite the smaller surge afflicting the latter. This is due both to the fact that Manhattan has none of its original wetlands to protect it and that the island has been developed all the way from one edge to the other. New York City is spending time and money trying to reclaim the area's swamps and that is a good thing. Swamps are the natural first defense of the continent against storm surges. Their mucky ecosystems are very efficient at dampening the impact of rising tides; way more so than, say, a parking lot or a high rise. This is all well and good and ecosystem restoration should definitely be encouraged and continued but a much easier starting point is to just stop building stuff on beaches. 

Extent of the surge. Park behind my apartment.

Significant erosion on an exposed beach.

Bonus points to whoever knows the literary reference used in the title.

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