By Gregory Morris
Scenario: For most of the U.S. the iconic image from Superstorm Sandy was the beloved roller coaster at Seaside Heights, NJ, half submerged in the Atlantic Ocean after the pier upon which it stood collapsed. For New Yorkers, however, the images seared in mind from the super storm were from Breezy Point, at the very tip of the Rockaway Peninsula, which became practically an island. Hurricane, tidal surge, and raging fires literally levelled the community. When federal and state aid began flowing to repair the Sandy damage, local and city entities at all levels mobilized. Coney Island, at the south end of Brooklyn, had already had its renaissance, and now it was the turn of the Rockaways.
For several years it was a giddy time. With community groups, city agencies, and private developers working together. But with continuing gridlock in Washington the federal funding dried up much faster than anyone had reckoned. The massive changes in the federal flood insurance program made some homeowners,
businesses, and even developers reluctant to rebuild.
Then, suddenly, the largest private parcel of land in all of the Rockaways came on the market, and just as quickly, was acquired by a casino company. The money for revitalizing the beach was soon flowing again. When it was finished the hotel and casino, dubbed Oceanic, cost $4 billion. The promoters were estimated to have spent close to another billion around the area on the beach, boardwalk, parks, and community centers.
There were dire warnings from climate scientists that so large a building right on the ocean front was begging for trouble. Opponents and some City Council members brought suit, saying the project ignored the latest research indicating that the combined effects of rising sea level due to a slowing Gulf Stream, along with more frequent and more intense storms made development risky. But the legal action was dismissed because the developers demonstrated that they used approved flood planning maps and the latest building technologies.
Studies that showed that it would be advisable to add a foot to the New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia flood zones were brushed aside.
For the next four years several storms came up the Eastern Seaboard. Water levels surged ominously higher each time. Each year one and then another community along the Jersey shore, Staten Island, and the south shore of Long Island--places where people had vowed to rebuild and did?grew weary of the fight against wind and sea and sand and retreated from the beach.
Through it all Oceanic held fast. Never quite as popular or as profitable as its backers had hoped, it nevertheless became a fixture.
Then came the soggy spring of 2021. No major storms, but endless rain. Summer brought little relief. Volcanic activity in the Pacific was blamed, along with the usual greenhouse gases. The dreary summer actually boosted business at Oceanic. Early August was a bit of a break, but then a series of drenching storms lumbered up the coast. None was very powerful, but saturated the ground all over.
After a single sunny day, a nasty thunderstorm with intense downpours and winds gusting to 60 mph rumbled down the Hudson Valley. The rain fell in buckets and Rockaway began to fill like a tub. The winds kept the water from flowing out of Jamaica Bay.
Just at dusk, the cornice on the back of Oceanic's roof crashed 31 stories to the ground. By 10 pm the entire building was visibly tilting, and was ordered evacuated.
By dawn the engineers had discovered that the ground under the very foundation of the massive structure was settling. Already saturated by weeks of rain, the last downpour had essentially undermined the foundation. But before any firm plan could be agreed upon, the entire $4 billion behemoth groaned, then slowly, majestically, toppled back away from the beach flattening everything behind it.
Analysis: Almost half a year after Superstorm Sandy devastated the Jersey shore and parts of Long Island and Connecticut, federal and state aid are finally accelerating the recovery and rebuilding efforts. But there is rising concern that in some instances rebuilding could lead to financial and legal exposures. That concern got a strong boost from recent academic research indicating that several effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, as well as increasing frequency and severity of storms are expected to multiply each other, causing worse coastal damage more often. A slowing Gulf Stream is now becoming central to that documentation.
One of the most recent papers was published in January by Tal Ezer, of the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, along with colleagues Larry P. Atkinson, William B. Corlett, and Jose L. Blanco. It was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans (Vol. 118) and documented how the slowing of the Gulf Stream is affecting sea levels, especially along the central east coast between Cape Hatteras, NC, and Cape Cod, MA.
"This may be the first time we have real data on the Gulf Stream's influence on sea level rise along the eastern seaboard," said Ezer. "The study indicates that monitoring the Gulf Stream can be predictive of influences on the mid-Atlantic sea level. For zoning boards, business planners, risk managers, and insurance companies, these tools are becoming available. They should be informed in their research, under writing, and risk management."
Another paper, published in June 2012 by Asbury H. Sallenger, Jr., Kara S. Doran, and Peter A. Howd, all of the U.S. Geological Suvey's Coastal & Marine Science Center (USGS-CMSC) in St. Petersburg, FL, also identified a mid-Atlantic "hot spot" for sea level rise. It was published in The Journal of Coastal Research.
"We asked if it is possible to detect an acceleration in sea level rise, and we can," said Howd, a research oceanographer with the Cherokee Nation Businesses - Technology Solutions, under contract to USGS-CMSC. "We are working on what might be driving this, but what it means is that you can add an extra foot to the flood zones for New York, Washington, Baltimore, and other cities."
It has been reported that when Sandy was bearing down on New York that she was due to arrive at high tide. Howd adds that she also arrived at the time of year for peak high tide. "Sandy was barely a Category I, and look at all the damage." Howd and other researchers stress that higher sea levels are not just a threat by themselves, but they magnify and are magnified by storms that are more frequent and more severe.
Such warnings ringing in the ears of risk managers, might seem like a clear call to action. The fact that hard data are now becoming available is usually a boon to planning and underwriting, but at the intersection of climate change, urban development, emergency planning, and insurance, there are at present more questions than answers.
"The big cat models that the insurance companies rely upon do not incorporate sea level rise," said a colleague of Ezer, Michael McShane, assistant professor of finance and specialist in risk management and insurance in the College of Business & Public Administration at Old Dominion. "FEMA and the federal flood insurance programs don't include sea level rise in their pricing."
McShane raises serious questions about what models, maps, and costs to use for risk management along the coast.
"We have a totally new ball game," said Ben Strauss, director of the sea-level rise program at Climate Central, an independent research group in Princeton, NJ. "All of our laws and all of our maps and plans are based on the land being stable and the risks being stable and the sea staying where it is. None of that is true any more. Over the summer Congress allowed, did not require but authorized, FEMA to consider changing risks. Before that FEMA was required to consider only historical risks."
As reconstruction accelerates after Sandy, Strauss asked, "how long will taxpayers and insurance companies continue to come to the rescue as these events become more intense and more frequent?"
Tracy Hester, director of the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Center at the University of Houston Law Center asked other pointed questions. "How does this affect exclusions from policies, now that floods might not longer be considered an Act of God? If a large infrastructure investment is made on the coast using planning maps that do not incorporate sea level rise, and there is a loss, can the insurer decline to pay, saying flooding was a known risk? Could the insured, or the insurer sue a planning authority for a map that did not include the latest science?"
GREGORY MORRIS is a freelance writer based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
April 12, 2013
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