The New York City transit system, with subway stations vulnerable to flooding, is being shut down tonight. Oh, what an adventure Monday morning is going to be in the world's greatest city.
Evacuations are spreading in coastal areas, including the New Jersey barrier islands, which have not experienced a really major coastal storm -- of the sort that can significantly alter geography -- since the 1960s, before those shore towns were so massively developed on fragile barrier islands.
Atlantic City (yes, it's on a barrier island) is emptying out. Atlantic City has been significantly developed since the last two decades of the 19th Century. Check out the amount of development that has occurred since the 1960s on the other barrier islands that form the Jersey Shore from Cape May northward.
So here we go again. A crisis, and a long time coping with and reacting to a crisis. And then we'll resume life just as before.
Why can't we respond to this one, after we've responded on the most basic levels of safety, by asking some questions?
--Isn't it time to cut the nonsense and insist that everybody admit that climate change is for real and we need to accept the reality while trying to undo some of the damage -- or at least not continue letting it get worse? Why aren't we looking those congressional climate-change deniers right in the eye and saying, "You know what? You're an idiot."
--Why can't we develop emergency plans that go beyond dispatching motorboats with first-responders to rescue those foolish or unfortunate enough to be stranded by a storm everybody sees coming?
--Why don't we move immediately to define and address discrepancies and deficiencies in the satellite networks we depend on for weather forecasting? Why haven't we demanded to know, for example, why there was so little warning to the public when the threat from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 abruptly changed from wind in Atlantic City to flooding in, say, Binghamton?
--There's probably nothing we can do to undo the insanity of having allowed massive development in flood zones, especially on the New Jersey barrier islands. But why do we think that flood insurance should protect this folly? (And on the Jersey shore, we're talking mainly about expensive beachfront homes in literally exclusive shore towns that do everything they can to keep out the public, and are the first to wail for help when their beaches wash away and their homes get damaged.) And why do politicians in New Jersey, in particular, resist any and all discussions about seashore development, the environment and the subsidizing of exclusice communities built for the one-percent on the fundamental assurance that they'll be looked after?
--What about all of those power lines that come down every time it rains and the wind blows, or when it snows and ice forms? In much of the country, in suburbs that have been developed since the 60s, the electricity grid is safely tucked underground. (It's complicated, with ramifications and staggering expenses. Then again, so was the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.)
But New Jersey and the near New York State suburbs were substantially developed over a century ago, and are saddled with aging infrastructure. Power lines exposed to the weather, creaky phone lines that require constant patching even in normal times, emergency plans that are based on air raid response protocols from World War Two. I used to live in Glen Ridge, a pleasant New Jersey town with gas street-lamps that dated to the 1920s. But the phone lines also come from that era, literally a time when Thomas Edison was still running his company 15 miles away. Every time it rained hard, the phones went out. (At least the gas lamps stayed on.)
After Hurricane Irene in August 2011, while the hurricand dramatists were still lovingly rerunning videos of themselves on the strand with wind-touseled hair, the actual issue -- the one we hadn't fully seen coming -- was heavy rains and flooding.
In Atlantic City, which is situated on a barrier island a lot more substantial that, say, Long Beach Island a bit farther north, bays and ocean met each other during the last huge coastal story in 1962. That was a storm surge of 8 1/2 feet. The current predicted surge level is 10 feet.
Rather than these repetitive scenes of hurricane-wind drama queens like New Jersey governor Chris "Thar She Blows" Christie slipping on his official windbreaker and bellowing that citizens need to run away from the threat (which they do need to do, obviously) -- wouldn't it be nice if, after this one blows over, we had a cogent, grown-up civic conversation about perhaps launching a major infrastructure initiative, throughout Old America, to protect our electricity supply against wind and rain and ice, elements that have been with us for a very long time?
Wouldn't it be nice if politicians like Christie started addressing issues like unwise seashore development on vulnerable barrier islands, and how we need to rethink coastal ecology?
Wouldn't it be nice if electricity companies, which are enormously profitable corporations, were required -- by government -- to start accounting for their inability to better ensure the delivery of the power supply?
These are questions just for starters. Because in weather events of a profound nature, it appears that this is the new normal.
[UPDATE: By mid-afternoon today, long before the storm was due to arrive, some New Jersey seashore towns were flooding, even though it wasn't raining. The reason, obviously, is that a massive storm approaching from the south is pushing around vast volumes of sea water, a storm surge that raises levels in the back bays. This is the classic example of the vulnerability of a barrier island.]