Rebuild, but Stronger

Sunset on the beach of Block Island in Rhode Island

During the holidays, I visited my family home in Jamestown, Rhode Island and saw the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Even then — two months after the disaster — the impacts were still very visible.

In one place waves had washed over a beach and road that connect two parts of the island. The carefully maintained dunes were gone. Sand cleaned from the road remained piled on the beach. There were large stones and more sand in the marsh that borders Dutch Harbor just to the north. The town council was trying to figure out what to do about the future of this and other low places on the island.

This view from the beach was particularly poignant for me because many years ago, as Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, I had worked to save the landscape of which the beach is a part. On the invitation to the ceremony marking the largest acquisition of conservation land for that project, we used a painting of Dutch Harbor from 100 years earlier. The idea was that the marshes, farms, woods and the beach would be protected for all the years to come, so that they would always have the same natural and historic character as they had a century before. Along Sandy’s path there are, I am sure, other paintings and photographs of the past, hanging in homes, community centers and old seafood restaurants now broken and boarded up in the wake of the storm.

Today, sadly, human activities, particularly unchecked carbon emissions, are so changing the climate of our planet that we cannot just keep places the way they are (or restore them to what they once were) if we are to avoid the risks and costs of disasters like Sandy.

Nowhere is this more evident than along the eastern seaboard, where natural coastal features are part of or adjacent to communities with millions of residents. Some may say that cities, towns and neighborhoods should be rebuilt exactly as they were before the storm, but a successful process of recovery will actually require a conscious and concerted effort to create a new and alternative future for the coast that maintains our emotional and functional relationships with the ocean and its beaches, bays and estuaries but is more resilient to what is now inevitable change.

In planning to create a future that is not just an extension of the past, our society does not have to abandon all that we’ve done before, but it does mean that we must do important things differently.

Some examples:

  • Reduce carbon emissions. If we don’t do that, read no further. It won’t matter.
  • Think big. We must deal with the larger scale of whole sections of coastline or whole watersheds. Dealing with the powerful forces of sea level rise and climate change in bits and pieces will just result in wasted money and unmanageable risks.
  • Recognize, respect and quantify the benefits of natural systems. Barrier beaches, dunes, salt marshes and oyster reefs cannot shelter the entire coast from storms – in fact, no solution, whether natural or built, can fully protect from catastrophic storms – but they can provide cost-effective protection where built infrastructure is not feasible or desirable. These natural features also provide the added benefit of helping sustain the fish and wildlife habitat and places for outdoor recreation that define the character and quality of life on our coasts.
  • Take a long view. Executing coastal plans over many years will require finding a way to pay for it all with dependable, long-term sources of funding, not just the emergency appropriations that often follow disasters.
  • Get creative within environmental laws. These laws should not be viewed as barriers to restoration, but rather a sensible framework of safeguards within which we can pursue inventive approaches to making coastal communities more resilient to the impacts of storms and floods.
  • Listen to people. Residents of coastal communities should be involved in every aspect of planning. If we are not simply rebuilding or restoring things the way they were, but actually creating an alternative future for coastal communities, then everyone has an even greater right to be part of the decision-making.

This last point is particularly important. Many Americans today feel that they have lost control of their lives. The impacts of the storm, the questions about rebuilding, and the failure of Congress to respond quickly all contribute to that feeling.

While the public processes to determine the course of rebuilding could be divisive and contentious, there is another option. If conservation science, engineering, planning and architecture are brought together with real consideration of the feelings and aspirations of the families so affected by the storm, then the restoration process can help create communities designed to better withstand future change. It can also give the residents of those places a lasting sense of self-worth and satisfaction in shaping the course of their own lives and those of their children.

Both the social and physical fabrics of coastal areas can be rebuilt and strengthened to better withstand the storms to come. We can rebuild our communities in ways that respect — but do not cling to — the past, and maintain the important and comforting bonds between people and place.

 [Image: Sunset on the beach of Block Island in Rhode Island. Image source: Karine Aigner]

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