Are Hurricanes Our Next Dust Bowl?

12/05/2012 12:16 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

Two nearly simultaneous events -- Hurricane Sandy's devastation along the eastern seaboard and the public broadcast of Ken Burns's documentary on the Dust Bowl of the 1930s -- couldn't seem more different. The Hurricane involved too much water, after all, and the Dust Bowl too little. But they may have more in common than what first meets the eye and as we recover from Hurricane Sandy, which may be the second most expensive disaster in American history after Hurricane Katrina, we could learn a lesson or two from the Dust Bowl.

Both Hurricane Sandy and the Dust Bowl, for example, were man-made disasters. Burns documents how excessive wheat-crop production and poor tilling practices in the 1920s and early 1930s led to the loss of topsoil when drought arrived soon after the start of the Great Depression. Farmers plowing under so much of the prairie made the Dust Bowl almost inevitable. Only when the Federal government stepped in to return large areas of land back to protected grassland, to hire people to plant hundreds of miles of windbreaks, and to educate farmers about how to till their fields in more sustainable ways did the Dust Bowl end. We created what many still view as the worst environmental disaster in American history, and we responded to it by returning much of the landscape to its natural state.

Hurricane Sandy holds similar lessons. While some environmental skeptics may still doubt whether or not climate change played a role in turning that hurricane into a super storm, no one can deny the fact that increased development along low-lying coastal areas increased the number of buildings destroyed, people displaced, and lives disrupted by wind, flooding, and fire. The property owners of these coastal areas may understandably want to rebuild what the storm destroyed, but watching the recovery efforts after the hurricane during the broadcast of the Dust Bowl documentary raises the question of what kind of rebuilding we need to do.

Just as prairie grass proved essential in keeping the soil of the southern plains from blowing away, the reefs, wetlands, and sandbars long the eastern and southern coasts of the U.S. play a role in buffering the effects of storms that we would do well to restore. Former New Jersey governors James J. Florio and Thomas H. Kean have said as much when they call for a version of the "Marshall Plan," in which "the key to reducing risk may be to avoid major investment in especially vulnerable areas" to "target those areas for restoration of green infrastructure that can protect the investments we do make," and "to incorporate the latest design practices and technologies into our buildings and communities ... to protect the steadfastness of ... residential and commercial development as well as public infrastructure."

What might such a "Marshall Plan" look like? As I discuss in my recent book Designing to Avoid Disaster, greater resiliency in the face of growing threats to our well-being demands, first, a change in our thinking. We need to get over our hubris and sense of invincibility and assume that bad things will happen, that our best intentions will go awry, and that our efforts to control nature through technology will ultimately fail.

In that light, the idea of building a $6 billion sea barrier at the mouth of New York's harbor represents the very thing we should not do. It will waste money and may even make the effects of future storms worse. It won't stop tidal surges and flooding that can affect New York City from other directions -- from Long Island Sound, for example, as happened during Hurricane Sandy. A surge barrier also won't do anything to protect all of the coastal development outside of it, which is where most of the damage from Hurricane Sandy occurred. Nor will it prevent the flooding that will occur as a result of an overall rise in sea levels, which will inundate low-lying areas regardless of what else we do.

Moreover, such a large-scale, singular solution to a complex problem creates the same "fracture critical" infrastructure that failed during the hurricane. The explosion in the substation that blacked out lower Manhattan and the flooding of the subway system shows how fracture-critical infrastructure makes people more vulnerable: we have to stop making so many people so dependent upon systems so easily breached and incapacitated. We can make such systems more resilient by "hardening" them, with watertight barriers that can withstand the highest possible tidal surges; by breaking down their scale, so that a failure in one part of the system causes the least amount of damage or disruptions; and by redesigning them so that critical systems lie above flood level. The builders of the elevated train line that is now the High Line had the right idea.

But real resiliency along our coastal areas will require another shift in thinking as well. Extensive, interconnected systems, however carefully designed, will always remain vulnerable to failure; we can never stop falling limbs from bringing down electrical lines or tidal surges from flooding sewer systems or severing gas lines. The only real protection from such events will come with a dramatic dispersal of our infrastructure to the scale of individual structures or small clusters of buildings. The more every property or community along our coasts can generate its own power, store its own water, and serve to some extent as its own utility, the more we will prevent the large-scale catastrophes and extremely expensive disasters that have resulted from two hurricanes less than a decade apart.

Hurricane Sandy should also prompt a rethinking of how and where we live along our eastern and southern coasts. I live and work in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where almost all of the shoreline along their many lakes, creeks and rivers remains in public ownership, providing one of the largest systems of linked open space in any city in the world. First proposed by the 19th Century landscape architect, H.W.S. Cleveland, these waterfront parks arose in part as a way of protecting private property from flooding and they have had the additional benefit of enhancing the value of that property that faced the publicly owned shores. Our coastal areas would do well to consider such a model.

As a former and long-time resident of Connecticut, where almost all the shoreline remains in private hands, I know the strength of property owners' attachment to living along the water. And I can just imagine the resistance to and expense of an enactment of eminent domain to return of America's low-lying coastline to public open space as a buffer against rising sea levels and storm surges. In an era so suspicious of government over-reach, it seems unlikely that such a taking of private property for the public good -- however justified -- will ever happen.

It may happen organically, though. The insurance industry, alone, could significantly change the location and kind of development along exposed coastlines by either refusing to insure property or making it so expensive that few could afford to rebuild there. Local governments, too, could have an effect depending upon how much they reflect in their property assessments and planning policies the cost of protecting and responding to properties vulnerable to catastrophic events. Such financial impacts would almost inevitably lead property owners toward more resilient ways of living along the water.

Our ancestors understood this well. Native American populations along the coasts lived for centuries in lightweight dwellings who ability to be moved or easily rebuilt made them responsive to -- and respectful of -- the force of winds and waves. And almost everyone else who came to these shores, especially prior to the last century, had a similar humility when living in exposed coastal areas, building seaside cottages and rustic cabins easily rebuilt or replaced if lost because of a tidal surge or hurricane-force winds. This points to one way of achieving a more resilient future for seaside communities -- what we can't preserve as public open space, we should rebuild in ways that allow property owners to quickly move or to willingly lose their waterfront property.

If that willingness to retreat from or relinquish to a storm sounds too un-American to some, the opposite tack of resistance also works, but it has to be done right. Here, the Coast Guard might serve as a model to emulate. Having long built structures intended to protect our coastlines -- lighthouses, boathouses, barrier walls, and the like -- the Coast Guard has learned to construct things in ways that can withstand the strongest storms. When you visit such facilities -- as I have the lighthouses along the coast as part of a former job -- you see the toughness and sparseness of such structures, often built of concrete, with just about everything bolted down or built-in so as not to float or fly away.

Another form of resilience lies here, in requiring that structures along our most exposed coastlines have the same solidity and durability, something that could be done either through building code requirements and/or through the leverage of insurance policies. While costlier in the short-term, such water-and-wind-resistant architecture might well equal the cost of moving or rebuilding temporary structures, especially given the almost certain increase in the number and violence of coastal storms. But either way, the nature of coastal dwelling will -- and indeed, must -- change.

We ended the Dust Bowl by returning much of the landscape back to its native state and changing how we treated the land we continue to occupy. And we will end disasters like Hurricane Sandy the same way: taking as much of our coastline as possible back to its pre-settlement state as the least expensive way of protecting ourselves from a future of super storms, and rebuilding the rest in as resilient -- as temporary or as indestructible -- a way possible, with those living in harms way having to pay much more for public services as a result of that choice. It may not sound like a "Marshall Plan," but it may be the only plan that, in the end, works.

Thomas Fisher is the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota and the author of Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design.