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Frankenstorm was a wake-up call for us

Wingham Advance-Times editorial

The eastern seaboard of the United States is still digging out from the viciously destructive weather event dubbed Frankenstorm.

Huge waves from the merging of hurricane Sandy with two winter storms, boosted by the full moon’s spring tide, inundated coastal communities. Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk was pounded to bits. Fires from downed hydro lines broke out, and fire crews stood by helplessly while houses burned to the water line.

The death toll continues to rise as more bodies are discovered in the debris. Even though Canada caught only the tail end of the storm, it caused at least two deaths in this country, one a Toronto woman struck by a falling sign, the other a hydro worker in Sarnia killed while repairing damage. Canadian crews are now assisting their American counterparts in getting New York City’s transit system up and running, and restoring power to places where lines are still down.

Only now, as the search and rescue phase of the disaster ends and is replaced by the rebuilding, is the extent of the storm’s devastation becoming known. Even the most optimistic estimates place it at least on par with Hurricane Katrina; the rebuilding process from that 2005 storm is far from complete. Many displaced by the storm have not been able to return to their homes, and many homes too damaged to occupy stand abandoned.

While Frankenstorm is being described as an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime event, many of us suspect it could be a foreshadowing of things to come with global warming. Whatever else it was, Frankenstorm was a reminder of how fragile our civilization is, when pitted against the forces of nature. The fact is, river deltas like the Hudson’s where New York City is situated, and the coastal islands stretching up towards New England where the rich and famous like to build hotels and mansions, are vulnerable to flooding. We know that, just as we know that buildings along the San Andreas fault are vulnerable to earthquakes.

Stable geology has never been a requirement for a civilization. Wealthy citizens of ancient Rome built their expensive villas on the ever-so-scenic shoulders of an active volcano called Vesuvius. The ancient Egyptians built their cities close to the Nile, not only knowing it flooded every year but counting on it.

Coastal areas and river deltas have long attracted human settlement because of the rich diversity of resources and ease of transportation. No one is suggesting shutting down New York City, New Orleans or the entire state of Florida because they are prone to flooding.

Those multi-million-dollar palaces on sandy coastal islands might be another matter, though. There is vulnerable, and there is so vulnerable it seems stupid to build there.

Australia has taken strong measures to protect sensitive coastal areas as well as the Great Barrier Reef and its many small islands. In North America, those islands would likely sprout luxury hotels and everyone would howl about the heavy financial loss every time they got destroyed by storms. In Australia, building is prohibited in sensitive areas. The wind and waves can do what they will with no financial impact, and the natural infrastructure remains healthy.

There is a growing trend in this part of the world to construct homes and businesses in places no one would have dreamed of building a hundred years ago – marshland, steep slopes and flood plains – and for good reason. The high cost of real estate has made the risk of flooding, of the foundations shifting, or of the whole structure sliding down the hill seem more acceptable. We need to include the risk to our environment in this equation. Coastal marshland serves as an important natural buffer, keeping stormwater from sweeping inland. Swamps and marshes filter out contaminants and protect our drinking water. Removing those trees and shrubs that spoil the view on our hillside paradise increases erosion.

The bottom line is, there are some places where putting up buildings is asking for trouble. Frankenstorm was a wake-up call for us to re-evaluate where we should, and should not build. If our climate changes in the way scientists predict, we will need to re-evaluate various risk factors and take a good look at what we need to do to mitigate the risks. The place to start is strengthening restrictions and prohibitions on construction in existing sensitive areas – before the next Frankenstorm.

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