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Preparing for Climate Change After Summer at the Shore

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Despite the comforts of modern climate control, New York City remains a very seasonal place. While summer gets an early start around Memorial Day, the real out migration of native New Yorkers begins on July 4th and ends on Labor Day. When I was a kid my family was part of the annual escape to the Catskills. As soon as school let out we headed north. With a U-Haul trailer attached to the back of our car, we drove for three hours to a small bungalow colony in Kerhonkson, New York. Later, it was a little country house in Lake Secor, up in Putnam County. As an adult, my summer escape has been on Long Island's South Shore in the City of Long Beach. Whether it's the mountains or the beach, the overall aim is the same, to slow down the pace, escape the city's intensity, and reconnect with family and friends.

From Labor Day to New Years, New York City grows in activity, stimulation and population. The ramp up is rapid, and on the Tuesday after Labor Day the city is already going full tilt. From July 4 to Labor Day the city moves to a different rhythm. Never slow, but less work and more play. At the shore this summer, the ocean breezes were as wonderful as ever, family and friends still gathered as always; but the shadow of Superstorm Sandy was never far from view. The sounds of construction were everywhere. Buildings were being demolished, lifted, repaired and built. While my time at the shore could be called a luxury, for many of my neighbors and for most of my family, it is their only home. My parents and sisters were all displaced by the hurricane, and many of my neighbors are still rebuilding their homes.

There are few if any climate deniers left on Long Beach. No one questions the cause of their misery, and few are confident that it won't return. I share that sense of foreboding. In some ways I guess I always have. My place on the west end of town is only one half block from the bay and a block and a half form the ocean. It is not uncommon to see half a foot of water in the street during a severe storm. I know that the hurricane of 1938 damaged Long Beach, and always figured at some point another big storm would hit. But Long Beach in 2013 is not the small isolated summer community it was in 1938. It is now a small city with a population of about 33,000. While it grows to 50,000 people in the summer, it can no longer be called a summer community. It has a school system, library, recreation center, bus system, sewage treatment and water filtration facilities and a Long Island Rail Road station... Not to mention Gino's Pizza, Marvel's soft serve ice cream and a couple of dozen thriving bars and restaurants.

Our federal, state and local governments must be given great credit for their performance in keeping people out of harm's way before, during and immediately after Sandy. But the reconstruction since the storm has been a picture of shameful incompetence and inexcusable bureaucratic bungling. Delays in insurance payments and government relief funding meant that while reconstruction could have begun in January, in many cases it didn't start until the late spring. Many months after Sandy, people are still waiting for decisions on grant and loan applications. Even today, it is not clear how much the rates for FEMA-backed flood insurance will grow. There are rumors that payments averaging $100 a month could grow to $1,000 a month. My neighbors are treated to the spectacle of scientists on TV telling them that the shore is doomed and they should leave, and to the shameless rhetoric of ideologues who say that government should not be responsible for helping people who have made bad choices about where they should live.

Here's the problem. The more intense weather impacts of climate change are not limited to the ocean shore. We see them in the changing storm patterns and increased flooding in the Midwest and in our mountains. We see these impacts in the droughts and fires out west. We need to get serious about the climate crisis that has arrived. The response to this crisis requires three key tasks:

  1. Mitigation: The transition to renewable energy must be accelerated. The meaningless "all-of-the-above" energy strategy of the Obama administration must be replaced by a global crash effort to develop renewable energy that is cheaper and more convenient than fossil fuels.
  2. Resilience: We must assume that the impact of the climate change already underway will grow, and respond by strengthening our infrastructure and built environment to resist the impact of worsening weather.
  3. Reconstruction: We need to put in place the revenue stream and organizational capacity needed to allow people and communities to rapidly rebuild after storms.

While I see some progress on resilience and increased recognition of the need for stronger infrastructure, our efforts at investing in renewable energy are meager, and our capacity for reconstruction is pathetic. I often argue that the fundamental, irreducible function of government is to protect people and provide security from forces beyond their control. Destruction by storm, destruction by arms and destruction by economic melt down require government action.

The political posturing over storm reconstruction was a disgusting example of our dysfunctional federal government. We need to develop a clear set of practical rules for reconstruction, and we need to find the political courage to levy a new tax to fund emergency response and reconstruction. I'm not expecting to see any of this any time soon, and expect it will take more pain and suffering before we finally figure out how to deal with the climate crisis. It's sad, but true. Sandy had an impact on the public and on elected officials in the Northeast, but most of the country is not ready to act.

In the short run, I, along with my neighbors, will wish, hope and pray for a few years of relatively calm weather, while we rebuild and reoccupy our homes. As James Taylor sings, "the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." In this part of the country, that's why summer exists. To sit back, count waves and watch the sunset. Or again to quote Mr. Taylor: "Summer's here, I'm for that. Got my rubber sandals. Got my straw hat. Drinking cold beer, man I'm just glad that I'm here. It's my favorite time of the year and I'm glad that it's here, yeah".

As this summer ends, that feeling of wistful reflection has to compete with a new feeling of anxiety and concern. Now that I've returned to the electric dynamism of post Labor Day New York City, I confess to being just a little relieved that we got through the summer with some elements of normalcy intact. I'm hoping that by next summer the memory of Sandy and the fear of another Sandy will recede. But I also hope the lessons of this past year will not be forgotten.

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