New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the right idea about sea-level rise, global warming, and the threat of catastrophic storms. East Hampton Town, and to a similar degree other local governments, have so far pretended these problems do not exist, although they may simply be paralyzed by their enormity. The discrepancy, however, is startling.
Last week, Mr. Bloomberg announced an expensive and ambitious plan to protect the city, drafted in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Long Island’s South Fork towns and villages should also be leading the way on preparations and planning for what appears inevitable for coastal communities, but they are not.
To get an idea of what our officials should be doing, it is illustrative to look at what the City of New York has been up to. As soon as 2020, city planners said in a recent report, annual average temperatures could increase by three degrees, with a 10-percent jump in rainfall. Sea level around the city could rise more than two feet by the middle of the century, and as many as 800,000 people could soon be living in 100-year flood plains, the report said.
Vital in the city’s response — and that of the East End towns and villages — will be protecting houses and infrastructure, such as electricity, fuel supplies, and transportation routes. The city’s report contains 250 specific recommendations, including flood walls, levees, and new dune and wetland systems. Early estimates are that the full project would cost at least $20 billion. Money would be made available for the owners of private properties to improve foundations, reinforce walls, and move mechanical equipment out of surge plains. Also included are suggestions about how to assure food supplies, functioning utilities, and health care.
As Hurricane Sandy showed, the difficulties largely came in the storm’s aftermath — even here, more than 100 miles from where its eye made landfall. For towns like East Hampton, where beaches are key to the dominant second-home economy, saving houses must be balanced with preserving beaches. So far the scales have been tipped too far toward waterfront property owners at the expense of public access, and ad-hoc solutions have been discussed in the absence of an overall plan. East Hampton Town officials have gone one step further, essentially agreeing to toss out the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, which was the result of years of careful study.
At a national level, Congress and the White House must increase funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help improve its flood maps and provide incentives and aid to those municipalities and homeowners unable to afford adequate preparation. Equally important, Washington must do more to address greenhouse gas emissions, a primary cause of sea-level rise and climate change. Without a two-pronged approach — smart anticipatory steps and cutting carbon dioxide and other pollutants — coastal areas such as our own will be among the first to suffer.