Tag Archives: Hurricane Sandy

East coast climate change and sea level rise – Motts Creek NJ, Ocracoke NC and Chincoteague VA

I live 18 miles from the beach in NJ. I’ve kept an eye on sea level rise for a long time, having rented a home on Brigantine Island for two years (1976 to 1978) and lived here in the Pinelands coastal plain for forty years, since 1978. I would have evacuated once from Brigantine, but the storm came through when I was out of town. What I remember in the aftermath was the salt hay all over the streets and lawns, and a population explosion of crickets. My current residence is more than 40 feet above sea level.

What do I think is going to happen along the East Coast as sea level rises?

Let’s start with a very small community. You won’t find Motts Creek listed as a municipality in New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood Galloway Township. I’m sure most Galloway residents never heard of it. Two friends of mine lived there in the past, both in rentals. A single road juts out into the salt marsh, and leads to Motts Creek Inn. The Inn thrives on being accessible by boat. On my recent visit, in November, the Inn was open but very quiet. A septic pumping truck sat in the parking lot. We passed about two dozen homes on the way in. Some have been elevated on pilings, and others appear to have been abandoned after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I estimate the year round population to be less than 100. I believe new construction along Motts Creek Road stopped around 30 years ago, when NJ wetlands were protected. Motts Creek properties are desirable for their boat docks, fine view and bird watching potential and undesirable for mosquitos, flies and flooding. I believe the area is unsewered and served by septic tanks. What does the future hold? I assume federal flood insurance still protects property owners. It’s hard to imagine Galloway Township and New Jersey going to great lengths to protect Motts Creek. I expect it will be lost to sea level rise before too many decades pass.

Ocracoke is on my mind because I just returned from spending Thanksgiving week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the town of Nags Head in a rented beachfront property. Ocracoke is a barrier island south of Nags Head. It’s reachable only by (car) ferry. I found population figures of 948 in 2010 and 591 in 2014 (both from Wikipedia). Ocracoke is unincorporated, but the federal government grants it the status of a “census-designated place”. (I have no idea what this means.) It does suggest Ocracoke has a little more “official” status than Motts Creek. Ocracoke was first permanently settled in 1750, has had a varied economy (shipping, fishing, tourism) and was home to a distinct dialect (accent?) sometimes referred to as High Tider. My point? Ocracoke has a culture. Something substantive will be lost if it is abandoned. (This can be said of many places, up to and including New Orleans.)

On September 6 of this year, Ocracoke was savaged by Hurricane Dorian. The storm surge was 2.5 feet higher than any previous storm, and the water rose fast. Some residents had evacuated, and all those who remained managed to survive. I picked up a copy of the Ocracoke Observer when I was in Nags Head, wanting to see what the community had to say about itself, since I couldn’t go and visit it.

Ocracoke was CLOSED. That’s an advantage of recovery on an island! Officials can shut the door. The island reopened to the public on December 5. Some observations:

  • The concept of post-storm planning has been around for years, but it really hasn’t been implemented anywhere. So Ocracoke is making its recovery up as it goes along.
  • Ocracoke is re-building. This is a point of pride and determination. But how much of whose money should be invested in restoring a place that’s in the crosshairs? Should a house be rebuilt more than once?
  • How different can a place be before it’s a new place? How do we value a “community” with little or no year-round population? Is a house on Ocracoke a “home” or an “investment”?
  • Some people and businesses are doing better (8 weeks out) than they initially expected. Others are finding that the damage was far worse than they thought.
  • Why, in a community with low population, where everyone knows each other, was it necessary to impose a curfew and alcohol sales ban? Hmmm…
  • Ocracoke got lots of help from various efficient and hard working non-profit volunteers, and the community is grateful.
  • If Ocracoke had to depend on its “own” resources, I don’t think it would survive. With state and federal help, I expect it will.

Regardless of how Ocracoke moves ahead, the whole Outer Banks (and New Jersey’s barrier islands) need some rethinking. How long will we continue to build and rebuild upon sand? Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are CRAMMED with businesses and rental properties. To me, evacuation looks like a major challenge. Nice place to visit. I wouldn’t want to own there.

On to Chincoteague. Of the three areas discussed here, this is the one to which I feel most emotionally attached. Yes, I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. I first visited in the 1970s, going back almost every year since, always in the off season, usually October or November.

We went, initially, to enjoy nature at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the fall bird migration. What a wonderful place! I’ve walked the beach and bicycled around the ponds and hiked the trails. Sometimes butterflies are abundant. We see turtles and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Chincoteague is a “real place”, a municipality in Accomack County, Virginia. The population peaked at 4317 in 2000 and dropped to 2941 in 2010. The US Census thinks it dropped a little more as of 2018. Many residents leave in winter. Oddly, the name Chincoteague wasn’t attached to the community until 1943 (Wikipedia).

Chincoteague has numerous assets – the federal Wildlife Refuge, a small fishing fleet, extensive ecotourism, and the famous (and controversial) wild ponies. Yes, a place to value and, perhaps, preserve. But it’s isolated, with a single long causeway. And it is excruciatingly LOW. It has no “high ground”. Wikipedia lists its elevation at 3 feet. Yes, just one meter.

Chincoteague already rebuilt once, after the 1962 northeaster called the Ash Wednesday Storm by which it was completely submerged. I believe that every house from before 1962 was elevated by several courses of cinderblock. A smaller community on Assateague Island, to the east, was abandoned, with a few houses being floated across to Chincoteague on barges.

I’ve studied Chincoteague carefully on my many bike rides up and down the narrow island. Most interesting to me is the fact the very highest land in Chincoteague is occupied, not by housing, but by graveyards. Old graveyards, perched on the long sand dunes that run north/south along the island.

In Chincoteague, plans for the future are being laid. Most conspicuous (and occasionally contentious) are plans for the federal land. The Refuge visitor center has been rebuilt. The bridge on the main access road to the island has been rebuilt, much higher. My last visit was in 2017. I was impressed by a new farmers market and a cultural society. The City has a Mayor and a website. Chincoteague may struggle, but I think it’s here to stay. Keeping my fingers crossed!

My point? It won’t be possible to save every house and every community as the sea level rises. We need to think and talk about future decisions NOW, and the conversational net should be cast as widely as possible.

“The Gathering Wind” by Gregory A Freeman

Product Details

This book has an extensive subtitle: Hurricane Sandy, the sailing ship Bounty, and a courageous rescue at sea.

The subtitle craze is out of hand.

I’ve read several books about the sinking of Bounty, a tall ship originally built in 1960 by MGM as a movie prop. MGM originally intended to burn the ship after filming Mutiny on the Bounty, but Marlon Brando protested and the ship became a tourist attraction. Many movie goers admired Bounty in the 1989 movie Treasure Island starring Charlton Heston.

Bounty sank on October 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. The captain and one crew member died. The remaining crew members were rescued by the US Coast Guard.

Details are widely available. One thing that is perfectly evident is that Hurricane Sandy had been predicted clearly and well in advance. No ship needed to be close to that large and violent storm, and in fact Bounty was alone on the ocean when it was destroyed.

What I found most interesting was a detailed account of the Coast Guard investigation of the accident. An investigation is not a criminal court proceeding. The intent was to discover cause and assign responsibility, and “to obtain information for the purpose of preventing or reducing the effects of similar casualties in the future.” It was acknowledged that this could lead to discovery of “incompetence, misconduct or willful violation of the law…”

The starting place for investigation and analysis is the assumption that (in recognition of the hazards of ocean travel) the captain always bears ALL responsibility for the ship. Captain Robin Walbridge had an excellent reputation and many years experience on sailing ships, but due to his death, the crew and owner of Bounty (and selected experts) would be the voices heard during the investigation.

To the surprise of all concerned, Bounty owner Robert Hansen withdrew from the process, citing his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The question of whether he pressured Captain Walbridge to sail under unsafe conditions because he wanted the ship available to a prospective buyer at an event scheduled in Florida was never answered.

With this failure of process, the Bounty investigation was stymied. Freeman discusses in detail what happened subsequently in the “court of public opinion”. Many people and organizations had a stake in the loss of Bounty. Most grievously harmed were the parents of deceased crew member Claudene Christian. Freeman includes in full a Facebook jeremiad posted by Jan Miles, Captain of the tall ship Pride of Baltimore II (and long term friend of Walbridge) in which he excoriates Walbridge for taking Bounty to sea in the face of Hurricane Sandy. He points out how the crew could have survived if Walbridge had taken shelter in Baltimore Harbor or even had deliberately run aground in the Chesapeake or Delaware estuaries. Jan Miles’s document is a heartfelt cry of pain, anger and disbelief.

Freeman’s book provides a useful case study for a number of subjects: the psychology of leadership and decision making, regulatory development, history of marine architecture and so forth. Or if you want a good adventure story, read it!

“The Cure for Catastrophe – How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters” by Robert Muir-Wood

Published by Basic Books, 2016, 278 pages plus extensive documentation.

This book carried me across the shock of the election. I snagged it from the New Arrivals Shelf at Stockton. It is a fine example of one of my favorite genres, science for non-scientists.

One important thing I learned is that denial (as in Climate Change denial) is nothing new. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was “re-branded” into a fire. True, highly destructive fires broke out, but the source of trouble was an earthquake. The City of San Francisco did not want to study the fault on which it stands.

What catastrophes does Muir-Wood discuss? Fires, earthquakes (and associated tsunamis), hurricanes (and their storm surges), other types of floods, and drought. Makes you wonder how humankind has persisted. He leaves out tornados and the mysterious derecho.

The point of this book is that most casualties during floods, earthquakes, etc. result from poor decisions. Housing in flood plains. Skyscraper apartment houses build without reference to building codes or advanced engineering principles.

Muir-Wood throws EVERYTHING at the problem, especially (to my delight) literature and history. Writing about a series of storms, he wisecracks “Gabriel Garcia Marquez could not make this up!”

The day after I started reading “The Cure for Catastrophe”, I found two related articles in the New York Times (November 4, 2016). On page A4 “Italian Town Still ‘Broken’ by Quake Years Ago” and on page A15 “San Francisco Sues Over Sinking Skyscraper, Symbol of a Rush to Build”.

Each of these stories can be understood better if analyzed from Muir-Wood’s point of view.

Why did this book help me shake off my post-election gloom? Because Muir-Wood is a super intelligent technological optimist. He can see a path forward to improved safety and health for all. He provides examples of people, cities and countries that are improving their catastrophe management. He invented the term “risk culture”, I think. And he was kind enough to forego use of the phrase “internet of things” until very late in his discussion. I haven’t quite integrated the IoT into my mental toolbox.

Read this book! And use it to demand good, science based public policy from our elected officials.

“SuperStorm – Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy” by Kathryn Miles

Published 2014, 332 pages, 8 color plates.

Maybe I should get the personal stuff out of the way first? Sandy was not our first weather catastrophe in 2012. South Jersey was hit hard by a derecho on June 30. It was a rogue thunderstorm with “straight line winds”, and it was not predicted. My husband and I woke around 1 am to an impressive display of heat lightning. A glance at the Rain-dar cell phone weather app showed that a storm was closing around us. The wind hit hard, thunder and lightning exploded, and we hurried downstairs, frightened. I don’t think the action lasted more than ten minutes. Our electricity was off. We wandered back to bed, relatively unconcerned. In the morning, we discovered the intensity and extent of the damage. Personally, we were lucky.

And regionally, we were (sort of) lucky. When Hurricane Sandy came lumbering through five months later, the weaker trees had already fallen down and lots of utility poles and wires and transmission towers were newly repaired.

Hurricane Sandy was very different from the derecho. Sandy was predicted. We listened to days and days of analysis. Remembering our 48 hours without power after the derecho, we stocked up on batteries, water and food that wouldn’t require cooking. Institutions made plans and battened themselves down. The local college closed its dormitories and sent the students home. Sandy was not officially a hurricane when it hit the East coast. The eye passed over us almost innocuously. The colossal storm surge did much of the damage, and the worst winds and rain missed our neighborhood.

The book Superstorm is a detailed, comprehensive discussion of the storm, with emphasis on meteorology and forecasting. The book follows several interesting threads, like the sinking of the tall ship Bounty and the heroic efforts that saved all but two members of the crew.

Superstorm is organized chronologically and emphasizes science but reaches out into politics, history, psychology and other fields in order to deal with important questions about human behavior. How do you explain the uncertainty inherent in weather forecasting? What motivates people to evacuate, on the one hand, or to defiantly remain in the face of danger? How do you communicate when your audience is already saturated with internet and social media chatter that ranges from informative to just plain bizarre (like conspiracy theory)?

Read this book! I would really like author Kathryn Miles to tackle the issues that emerged after Sandy. Where should we rebuild? Are there parts of the coast that must be abandoned? How much money should be invested in putting houses and businesses back into their pre-storm condition? How much should be invested in infrastructure changes? How do you manage reconstruction to minimize fraud?

Another set of issues emerging after Sandy surrounded the definition of a hurricane. Criteria for wind speed, wave height and “eye” structure don’t tell the whole story. In the future, there will be more emphasis on storm surge prediction.

This book is another in a series of high quality “science for non-scientists” books I’ve read lately. (See my posts of June 19, May 3 and January 29, 2015.) Is this a genre? If so, it’s one of my favorites. This is the kind of book I could aspire to write.