Can Hurricane Irene Offer Lessons for Coastal Communities?

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Extreme weather, Learn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Note: Two weeks after Hurricane Irene lumbered up the Atlantic Coast, followed by heavy rains from Tropical Storm Lee, rivers are high in the Northeast and many communities and property owners are still assessing the damages. While some coastal properties were inundated when the hurricane came ashore over Long Island and Connecticut, much of the flooding further inland did not develop until several days after Irene moved on as a tropical storm.

In this post, originally published in the Connecticut Post on Sept. 2, Adam Whelchel, Ph.D, director of science at The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut, asks: What if Irene had been bigger – and can we learn lessons for the future?

With a new Coastal Resilience Tool, developed by the Conservancy and partners, residents of shoreline communities in Connecticut and New York can actually see what a Category 2 or 3 storm would do to sea levels along the coast in their neighborhoods – and this can be powerful information.

Irene a cause to plan ahead

I’m not sure what was more alarming — fearing a direct hit from Irene as a Category 2 hurricane or seeing how much damage a hit from Irene as “just” a tropical storm caused in Connecticut’s coastal areas. While this event wasn’t as bad as it might have been for many of us, the reality of Tropical Storm Irene serves as a grim reminder of how devastating a more serious storm could be. These storms reshape our coastlines, often not in ways we would like them to, and Tropical Storm Irene is yet another reminder that there are risks to living and investing along the coast.

Estimates suggest that we currently have close to 900,000 citizens (27 percent of the state’s population) residing in 382,000 housing units within a 44,500-acre swath of coastal Connecticut that will potentially be flooded during a Category 3 hurricane. Under this worst-case scenario, the economic impacts to property loss and business interruption would certainly be greater than the $18 billion projected for a 100-year storm event.

As we continue recovery efforts and begin to move past this storm, there is always the tendency– maybe even a desire — to forget, to just move on without realizing some hard-earned lessons. There’s a difference between moving on and moving forward, though. To do the latter, we need to reflect on Irene and let the storm bring into sharper focus not only what we can do to better weather a storm in the moment, but also how we can better prepare for the next one. The unfortunate reality is that there will be a next storm, and then others after that.

The best scientific research tells us the frequency and intensity of these storms will be exacerbated by a changing climate. At the same time, rising sea levels, disappearing wetlands and increased coastal development threaten to amplify the human hardships and suffering and property damage caused by these storms.

Fortunately, there are many resources and much expertise available here in Connecticut that provide information and advice — however sobering — that can help us protect this state we love. As one example, The Nature Conservancy and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have developed an online Coastal Resilience computer program that incorporates sea-level rise with projections of potential storm surge impacts from category 2 and 3 events. The program enables you to see on the screen what will happen to specific neighborhoods and streets under different storm scenarios at different times in the future.

This information tells us there are things we should do to mitigate our current and future risks. We should be more thoughtful about identifying which communities are at risk, which neighborhoods, which schools and which elder care facilities.

We should also identify which areas are perhaps unsuitable for future growth — those low-lying areas subjected to flooding during today’s storms, as well as areas that would be threatened by future storms and increasing sea levels. We should work to continually improve the linkage between emergency management and ongoing longer-term conservation and development planning.

We should remember that conservation is one of the best tools we have for reducing the impact of hurricanes. Wetlands such as salt marshes have tremendous ability to slow down storm surges and deflect the energy of waves away from vulnerable coastlines. If we can continue to promote and restore and enable these marshes to exist we’re essentially getting this defense or green infrastructure at a very low cost.

Finally, we should, as a state, formally recognize a scientifically based sea-level rise rate that becomes part of the way we plan and fund coastal development and realignment for the future. It isn’t alarmist to consider these things in the face of Irene. It is prudent and just makes good sense. One day, we’ll have the opportunity to thank ourselves for having done so.

Adam Whelchel is director of science at The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.

Photo by: Flickr user U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region (Homes damaged by Irene in Bethel, VT, taken Aug. 29, 2011) Used under a Creative Commons license.

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