Remaining at Risk Despite the Evidence

And so it has happened again. A major American city is inundated after a hurricane, and officials claim they could not have anticipated how bad it might be. They have then used their lack of foresight as an excuse for inadequate planning, little evacuation preparation, and failure to obtain emergency supplies. This, of course, is complete nonsense. 

Weather historians and those who study climate trends, sea level rise, and urban settlement patterns all have warned for decades that much of the United States’ Gulf and Atlantic Coasts are at extremely high risk of massive devastation. Even for those not inclined to pay attention to warnings from scientists and researchers, the facts were obvious following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Now, as Hurricane Irma threatens a violent sweep north through Florida into the Carolinas, those lessons seem all but forgotten.

Forgetting may be part of human nature. Before Sept. 21, 1938, people on eastern Long Island simply believed that hurricanes did not happen here. A long quiet period led up to that terrible day, as hurricanes were thought to be only a Southern problem. Indeed, they were not, and by the time the sun rose on Sept. 22, 1938, dozens were dead across the island and thousands of houses destroyed. Nearly the entire fishing village on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk was gone. Downtown Providence, R.I., was inundated with water nine feet deep in some places. Fires devastated parts of New London and Mystic in Connecticut. As with Katrina and Hurricane Harvey, flooding from rain followed, causing about $50 billion worth of damages in today’s dollars in areas as far north as Vermont. The Connecticut River in Hartford exceeded 35 feet, 19 feet above flood stage.

Catastrophic hurricanes have hit Long Island regularly enough since 1938 that you might think everyone would take them seriously. Sandy certainly should have been a catalyst to force hard decisions about continued building in vulnerable areas, but it was not the change agent necessary. Since that storm, residential expansion along Long Island’s shorelines has continued, and there are few substantial efforts to relocate structures to higher ground in at-risk areas, such as Montauk’s downtown.

The decentralized nature of American governance might make wholesale change in the way we live and do business along the coasts all but impossible. That does not excuse officials from making worst-case preparations in anticipation of what Katrina and Sandy and Harvey, and now probably Irma, teach us.