Columnist: How to Soften Future Storm Blows?

Hurricane Sandy delivered New York, America's premier world city, a devastating blow. Literally millions of lives were impacted. Damage estimates for the city and its environs -- exclusive of New Jersey and Connecticut -- run are as high as $18 billion. 

Sandy's horrific destruction confirms beyond reasonable doubt that extreme weather events -- all coinciding with the forward march of climate change -- will impact our coastlines throughout this century. 

There are clear global response models. The Netherlands, responding to the North Sea tidal surge of 1953 that pushed water 18.5 feet above sea level and took 1,836 lives, has made storm protection a national security issue. The Dutch have constructed a complex series of levees. Included is a gateway of huge swinging steel arms, twice the size of the Eiffel Tower, to protect Rotterdam from storm surge. 

Britain, defending its crown jewel city of London, has constructed a massive flood barrier on the Thames River. Venice is building a massive system of moveable barriers that will rise from the seabed to protect the city from high tides. 

Assume similar protections constructed on the seaward sides of America's most exposed major metropolises -- New York, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, the Tampa Bay and Virginia Beach areas and others. The costs would run into the tens and hundreds of billions. 

But with rising global temperatures (both air and sea water), with huge and growing proportions of Americans choosing to live on our coastlines, usually in or near our major cities, is there really any other choice? And isn't it imperative to protect our overwhelmingly metropolitan area-focused national economy? 

Hurricane Sandy's blow on New York represented a direct hit on lower Manhattan and Wall Street -- the epicenter of global finance, peopled with master financial planners. Yet with an irony: "Wall Street," notes infrastructure expert Michael Likosky, "continues to build Chinese, Middle East and North African, Indian and other nations' infrastructure, and pipelines. It needs to do more at home." 

With a national infrastructure bank of the type endorsed by President Obama and many top fiscal experts, there'd also be a strong spur to attract big financial capital pools currently on the sidelines. 

But Likosky offers a warning not to "silo," or consider as stand-alones, the massive sea walls and other engineering projects now needed to protect cities and shorelines. He'd look for ways to integrate the new flood safeguards with major water supply and energy and transportation projects, fostering synergies and economies to maximize the resilience of cities and metropolitan regions. 

And there's another wrinkle. In contrast to "hard" engineering, we need to examine the promising "soft" side to hurricane and storm resistance. By some estimates, coastal wetlands provide more than $2 billion a year in storm surge and flood protection along U.S. coastlines. 

Yet careless development practices can trigger severe marsh erosion and collapse -- a top example being the oil and gas industry's vast network of canals and pipelines that have literally punctured the Mississippi River delta, radically increasing storm vulnerability. Likewise, the East Coast's massive oyster reefs, once a natural sea wall for New York, were decimated by decades of city-discharged pollutants. 

A top solution for us now, my New York developer friend Jonathan Rose insists, is "to recreate a wetlands barrier -- the systems that protected our coasts for hundreds of thousands of years." 

One New York study, in fact, suggests active steps to create an archipelago of islands and reefs to dampen storms currents. There's even a sliver of hope that water quality improvements begun after passage of the Clean Water Act could speed revival of the historical oyster reefs. 

What's likely needed is a mix -- both the big engineering projects such as sea barriers but also a range of environmentally friendly "soft" solutions. 

Sandy, however, is raising another troublesome issue: the future of intense building activity on our shorelines. The massive destruction Sandy inflicted on the Jersey Shore and Long Island, Rose notes, underscores the folly of building and rebuilding on vulnerable outer reefs and other exposed locations. 

State laws forcing carriers to keep insuring such exposed properties, as well as the availability of federal storm insurance, foster building in highly vulnerable areas. About 40 percent of federal claims go to 2 percent of properties that are repeatedly flooded. 

An added factor, Rose observes: the enormous stresses that serious storms place on oceanside fire and police and road systems, as well as public utilities. 

Do we want to keep tolerating -- and insuring -- rampant coastal development? Should post-storm claim awards only be usable for development in safer spots? Those are tough next questions for public debate. 
Neal Peirce's email address is

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necesssarily those of the National League of Cities.