Coastal cities seek protections against superstorms


Galveston, Texas

Galveston, Texas, is betting on the Ike Dike, a proposed 60-mile storm gate named after the raging hurricane that walloped the island and the rest of the Houston area four years ago, leaving more than 70 people dead and $30 billion in damage.

Norfolk, Virginia, is trying to strengthen its string bean of a storm-drainage system that can't absorb mild flooding from high tides, much less days-long deluges from hurricanes or nor'easters.

And Maryland is looking for help from nature itself, buying up wetlands and marshes that officials hope will thrive in coming decades and provide buffers against surging stormwater.

Sandy's battering of the Northeast provided a preview of a terrifying future for many coastal areas — one potentially marred by increasingly frequent superstorms, with fierce winds and massive flooding. As a result, ideas to protect low-lying coastal cities — even those ideas once dismissed as too expensive or far-fetched — are getting a second look from officials and scientists worried that climate change will spawn a succession of ever-more-violent Sandys.

Some cities are looking into seeding oyster reefs and sea grass beds off Long Island and the Delmarva Peninsula's Atlantic coast; these natural protections, scientists say, could help absorb the first wave of surging waters before the coastline is overwhelmed. Other areas are considering adding massive amounts of sand to their shorelines to soak up some of the surge before it reaches the next set of heavy blockers, sand dunes.

"In the aftermath of the storm, everybody wants to do what they wish they had done before the storm," said Jim Titus, an expert on rising sea levels. "A lot of this stuff, they're starting the process of figuring out."

Along the coast, anxiety is growing even as cash-strapped local, state and federal governments struggle to come up with funding to study and develop storm-protection schemes. Complicating the efforts are continued partisan fights in Washington and in states over the cause and impact of climate change.

Caught in the middle are scientists who study the problem and say they haven't gotten adequate support. They worry it will take an even more destructive storm to end the political gridlock.

Hurricane Ike was a beast when it hit the Houston area in September 2008, ripping into Galveston and shutting down a petrochemical plant, causing fuel shortages. Four years later, William Merrill, the Texas A&M University professor who first envisioned the Ike Dike as a defense against storms, only recently got significant funding for his work. His proposal: Build a barrier in the Gulf of Mexico stretching the length of the island of Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula, with gates that swing open to allow boats into the bay and close to block storm surges of up to 17 feet.

Galveston provided $250,000 for the project, Merrill said, allowing his research to continue and raising his hopes that he'll eventually convince officials that the $6 billion structure is worth it.

"We're slowly building the political will [to build it]," said Merrill, the George P. Mitchell chair for marine science at Texas A&M University at Galveston. "I just hope we don't have to wait until thousands of people are killed."

Other coastal areas have been stymied by partisan differences over the environment.

In North Carolina, the legislature voted this year to prohibit any regulations related to sea-level rise or global warming along the state's coast before 2016. John Dorman, who as director of the Geospatial and Technology Management Office agency helps the state identify hazard risks, said the lack of political agreement has complicated his task: using a $5 million federal grant to study the impact of a rise in sea levels.

Dorman initially based his study on the assumption that sea levels could rise by nearly three feet by 2100 but scaled it back to 15.7 inches after objections from state and local residents who were concerned about the analysis's economic impact. "What I need is someone to say, 'John, this is what everyone agrees upon,' " he said.

Last year, Titus, the sea-level expert, wrote for the Environmental Protection Agency the first-ever plan that advises coastal areas to stop trying to hold back water. He said a rise in sea levels is unstoppable and will be a fact of life in about 70 years.

He offered three suggestions for planners: retreat from the coasts, giving landowners money as an incentive to leave; continue building dikes, which cost about $35 million per mile, according to one expert; or let landowners stay in projected flood areas as long as they want but make clear that they will be on their own when the waters rise.

Maryland officials have conducted a comprehensive analysis of sea-level rise and are pushing to redirect development. Zoe Johnson, program manager for climate-change policy at the state Department of Natural Resources, said Maryland wants to avoid building "in areas that are the most vulnerable."

Johnson is skeptical of big engineering proposals — such as a dam at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. She favors natural defenses, as does the Nature Conservancy, which has helped restore the beach and meadows at New Jersey's South Cape May Meadow. While Sandy made landfall near the preserve, the area fared much better than other parts of the state, as it did during Hurricane Irene.

Forty years ago, Providence, R.I., took a different path, building the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier to protect the city from floods. Constructed in 1966 after a major hurricane, the barrier's 25-foot wall and gates control storm surges in Narragansett Bay.

"It's 10 feet higher than the worst-case scenario," said Pete Gaynor, director of emergency management and homeland security for Providence. "I'm more than confident that the barrier would protect the city. It would have to be the storm of the century to overcome the barrier system."

To protect New York, Malcolm Bowman, a professor of oceanography at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, envisions a storm barrier on a much grander scale. But Bowman isn't sure the barrier he has worked on and promoted since 2004 — which would cost between $3 billion and $6 billion — will ever be built.

"People say it's too ambitious, it's too expensive, let's talk about it 50 years from now . . . when the sea level rises two to three feet," he said. "Well, that's too late."

When the cleanup ends, Bowman said, Sandy is likely to be forgotten like the hurricanes before it: "Unfortunately, it's going to take a storm with a major loss of life. It's going to be like Europe, that big storm that drowned several thousand."

He was referring to the 1953 North Sea storm that killed more than 2,000, mostly in Britain and the Netherlands. After that debacle, the Dutch set out to design and build the world's most ambitious storm-surge protection system.

Spanning 400 miles, and costing $40 billion over four decades of construction, the Delta Works has been called the eighth wonder of the world. The system of dams, dikes, gates, sluices and walls is designed to reduce the risk of flooding to once every 4,000 years.

Unlike politicians in the United States, "the Dutch in 1953 were like, 'Never again,' " said Dale Morris, a senior economist at the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Dutch have helped build storm protections all over the world, including in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Venice. They assisted with the recent construction of New Orleans's $14.5 billion system of levees, flood walls and gates designed to thwart the kind of catastrophic flooding Hurricane Katrina caused in 2005.

The Dutch experts have also worked with officials in New York and Galveston. And they have advised Norfolk on storm-water drainage and Miami on water management.

Some experts warn that while it's important to adopt protections against floods, efforts to hold off deluges will eventually fail if greenhouse gas emissions and global warming aren't curbed.

"We can build seawalls, we can raise highways, but it's a losing proposition if you don't stop sea-level rise," said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, who lost power at home in Lower Manhattan when Sandy hit.

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