Friday, August 26, 2011

It's Not the Wind, It's the Water

[Long Beach Island, a barrier island on the New Jersey coast]

South Jersey and the Jersey Shore appear to be directly in the path of this big hurricane moving up the East Coast. As usual, the media are missing the point when it comes to coastal New Jersey south of Asbury Park (here is mention of Bruce Springsteen mandatory in all media accounts that say Asbury Park).

The southern half of the 125-mile long New Jersey coast is characterized by large concentrations of population and development that were not present during the last comparable coastal hurricane that hit that area of the coast -- in 1960.

A weather bulletin late last night noted the potential for "catastrophic inland flooding." Those words need to be taken into account by reporters who love to report hurricanes by standing on the beach looking at waves or showing pictures of wind-bent trees.

If I were a city editor, I'd have reporters in Cape May, Wildwood, Atlantic City and on Long Beach Island, that thin strip of seashore development with all those expensive beach houses clustered on the northern portion. And I'd make sure they paid attention to the back bays and to the science of water flow -- a lack of attention toward which was one of the initial mistakes of the coverage of the New Orleans hurricane disaster.

If weather forecasts are correct, the most significant impact of this hurricane on the New Jersey coast will be the movement of water, great volumes of which will be pushed from the sea into the bays and inlets that thread through the coastal regions.

Most of the South Jersey Shore is on barrier islands, spits of land that by definition are subject to rearrangement by the sea and the inlets and back-waters always pressing in on them. For decades, coastal scientists have been warning that an inevitable major storm will significantly rearrange the geography of coastal New Jersey from Cape May, which sits on the tip of the coast between the ocean and Delaware Bay, to Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town on the northernmost major New Jersey barrier island.

I'm distressed to see news organizations focusing on the Atlantic City casinos closing, or interviewing people in, say, mainland Long Branch (or, for some unfathomable reason, focusing entirely on North Carolina) -- overlooking the fact that all of New Jersey's southernmost Cape May County (including the Cape May, Wildwoods and Absecon Island seashore resorts) is being evacuated today, along with coastal Atlantic County and Long Beach Island. I'd guess that around 1.5 million people will be suddenly on the road. What a scene that will be.

For decades, driven by money, New Jersey has taunted fate with its practices and policies on coastal development. Aside from the longstanding and accessible seashore towns like Cape May, Wildwood, Atlantic City and Seaside Heights, the Jersey coast is marked by long stretches of literally exclusive beach towns in which a great many expensive residences have been erected, on shifting sands, since 1960.

Those exclusive towns -- which conspicuously and brazenly block public access to their fine white beaches by non-residents, especially the dreaded "day-trippers" -- are always the first to scream for taxpayer assistance when even routine storms cause beach erosion. New Jersey and the federal Army Corps of Engineers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on beach-rebuilding projects in such places since the 1990s.

[When I wrote a column called "Jersey" for the New York Times from 1995-1998, I regularly paid attention to this folly. Meanwhile, Cornelia Dean, a New York Times science editor, wrote an important 1999 book on foolhardy coastal development, Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, that is, alas, out of print. Here's the Amazon link to the book, which can be ordered used.]

If this is the big one that has long been feared, it will be interesting to see how the disaster-relief battle plays out among those who have defied nature with the assurance that taxpayers will be there to bail them out when the tides turn.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe this storm will wash away the hell hole that is New Jersey. We could only be so lucky.