Hello, This Is Your Wake-Up Call
One week after Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the New Jersey coast, I’ve been exiled to the Center City Holiday Inn in Allentown, PA. Back in northwestern New Jersey my home is dark and cold. In rural areas no electricity means no heat, no lights, no water, no phone, no internet access and, since many cell towers in the region were knocked out of commission, there is spotty cell phone coverage at best. Electric wires are lying across the front lawn and the lines from the road to my house are hanging from branches in the woods; pulled from the poles by several of the many large trees that fell or were snapped in half by the storm’s fierce winds. Gas stations are mostly closed and the few that are open have long lines and limited supplies. Getting anywhere is an adventure as roads are blocked by downed trees, fallen wires and broken telephone poles.
So, after six days of finding inventive ways to cook everything that was left in the refrigerator on the barbecue grill, chainsawing my way to the road, sleeping in the cold and flushing the toilet with pots of water from the bathtub, it was time to get out-of-town. The closest available hotel rooms were in the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania and a trip to a patch of high ground yielded the cell coverage necessary to make a reservation . We packed the car and headed west leaving our venture into the world of Little House on the Prairie behind. Arriving back in the 21st Century, with T.V., high-speed internet, heat, showers and actual modern plumbing, we were able to find that as difficult as our week had been, Sandy had been much harder on other parts of the region. The stunning video of the damage and the effects on the coastline of New Jersey and even in New York City were sobering.
The havoc and destruction that the nearly 90 mph wind gusts wreaked on inland NJ were mild compared with the effects that were visited upon coastal areas of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S. by a record storm surge. My home is intact. My family and friends are well. The rainfall in our area was modest, so flooding was not a problem. Eventually, the electric lines will be rebuilt or repaired. I spent Saturday afternoon at a college football game watching Muhlenberg pull out an exciting 24-17 overtime victory over Ursinus. I then went to a nice warm hotel room where I could enjoy what, after a week in the cold and dark, were the modern marvels of a hot shower, television and, free wi-fi internet access. I’m writing from the relative comfort of a hotel room hanging out with utility workers from Ohio and Indiana who have come to help repair the storm’s damage to the power grid. My interaction with Sandy was annoying and distressing, but at its worst, an inconvenience. I was lucky.
I will skip over the technical analysis of the storm. That’s better left for meteorologists and climatologists, you know, the people who actually know what they’re talking about. We do know that record high tidal surges were recorded all along the east coast. The pictures of the Hudson River pouring into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in Manhattan or of swaths of shore homes wiped from the barrier islands speak for themselves. The sight of the roller coaster at Seaside Heights, NJ sitting in the ocean will likely be an iconic image for generations. But the real lessons from this storm won’t be found in the damage. They won’t be found in the words of politicians reassuring victims. They won’t be found in the empty arguments of right-wing talk show hosts. The lessons won’t even come from the deaths of over 100 people in the storm’s path. No, the lessons will be in how we react as a society and whether or not we start to take planning for a changing climate, and a changing world, seriously, rationally and intelligently.
History doesn’t repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes-Mark Twain
So, what does this have to do with politics and the environment? For starters, we better start paying more attention to reality with our policy-making and less to political considerations. Last week when the long-range forecasts first started showing Sandy making landfall along the New Jersey coast I started writing an article about the last great storm to batter the mid-Atlantic in March 1962. 50 years ago, the Ash Wednesday storm lashed the east coast from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Maine. Although there was serious damage all along the storm’s path, like Sandy, it reserved its biggest impacts for New Jersey’s barrier islands. However, the 1962 storm was much different in character. That storm was a more typical Nor’easter that sat off the coast and caused onshore winds to drive water landward for three days. This was the mid-Atlantic’s storm of record for over half a century. As it became more and more evident that Sandy, along with its storm surge, would indeed make landfall somewhere along the New Jersey coast I put the article aside to await the actual results. While there are many similarities between the 1962 storm and Sandy, there are also significant differences. Those differences are where we need to direct our attention.
After more than 100 years without a land falling hurricane striking the New Jersey coast, there have now been two in two years. We can quibble that Irene, in 2010, fell to just below hurricane strength before coming ashore or that Sandy may or may have not become extra-tropical just before hitting the coast, but the distinctions are only important to the weathermen. Sea level is at least a half-foot higher along the east coast today than it was in 1962 and it continues to rise at a rate of approximately 3 millimeters per year. Summertime ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic off the northeast coast are rising and remain warmer into the Autumn months. Increased melting of Arctic sea ice has contributed to warmer Arctic air temperatures and the strengthening of high pressure systems in the far north Atlantic that act as blocks for northward traveling weather systems. Theses blocks force the storm track closer to, or actually back towards the East coast of the United States. The intensity and frequency of storms will continue to increase over historic norms and they will affect populated areas again and again. With the higher sea levels, even storms that in the past were ordinary, will begin to have increased effects on coastal areas. We can have all the political arguments we want about whether or not climate change is occurring or if it is the result of man-made activities. Those disagreements will ultimately be resolved, with certainty, by Mother Nature.
When I get back home and things get settled I will return to this subject for a more detailed analysis. Until then, consider the implications from this event for our policies at the national, state and local levels. Our land use practices, infrastructure investments, and the resiliency or redundancy of the structures we rely upon for our modern society all need to be re-assessed. There are an incredible number of cascading consequences from food supplies to adequate drinking water supplies that we must respond to. One storm drove the most densely populated portion of the nation, and our country’s biggest city, back to the 19th Century in a matter of hours. What will happen next time? (And there will be a next time) Before we even begin to address the root causes of climate change and our answers for them, we need to have a day of reckoning where we acknowledge that something is happening and we need to react. That is how rational and intelligent people respond to challenges. One thing that should be clear however is that both time and our luck have run out. Its time to demand that political leaders respond to the reality that we are facing serious and growing threats that we can no longer afford to ignore or treat as just another political issue. The power to make this change lies with us. It’s high time we used that power.- Ben Spinelli