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Karl Grossman: The “Lessons Learned” from “Frankenstorm” Sandy?

Sun, Nov 11, 2012

Opinions

Photo by BrooklynVegan photographer Kurt Christensen.

What an ordeal we’ve all been through—and many are still going through!  As I write this on Sunday, electricity is still out to a huge number of homes and businesses on Long Island as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

The Long Island Power Authority is being blasted. There were demonstrations yesterday of outraged Long Islanders protesting LIPA’s Sandy performance. At one, in Hicksville, a placard read: “Shame on LIPA. Shame on its Board of Directors. No Lights. No Heat. No End in Sight.” Another declared: “We Want Power Now!”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone held a press conference yesterday to announce that Suffolk “has cut ties with LIPA headquarters and has begun directing local assets to expedite restoring power.” Bellone said that “people are desperate out there. After two weeks they need their power restored.”

Other public officials have also been lambasting LIPA and calling for greatly expanded federal assistance in view of LIPA’s failure to restore power to all of Long Island since the hurricane hit on October 29. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said yesterday that LIPA “cannot continue under its present structure.” Earlier in the week, he proposed that the U.S. military and Department of Energy take over the “managerial structure” of LIPA during the restoration of power.

What, at this stage, might be considered some of the “lessons learned” from “Frankenstorm” Sandy—in addition to how Long Islanders can’t count on LIPA to get power restored even more than 10 days after a major storm, a LIPA record?

Beyond everything else, Sandy has provided a big lesson on the awesome power of nature in its fury. In this regard, it has demonstrated the folly of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to dump sand along ocean beaches to supposedly “fortify” them, so-called “beach replenishment.”  In one fell swoop, sand dumped on the affected coastline in these Army Corps of Engineers’ endeavors up and down the Mid-Atlantic has been washed away.

Yesterday, the Ponquogue Bridge in Hampton Bays was finally opened and I was able to look at some Sandy impacts along the Dune Road strip. Dune Road itself in many spots was washed over and was still closed. But viewing what could be seen from the ocean beach just south of the Ponquogue Bridge, one could see that the shoreline as far as the eye could see in either direction was now flat all the way to the water. Once it curved upward toward the line of grass-covered dunes. Not any longer.

Then there’s the important connection to climate change and global warming.

Bloomberg Businessweek in its cover story on Sandy ran a photo of the storm in its full wrath with the headline, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Sandy brought climate change and global warming home violently.

Bellone was asked at a press conference three days after the hurricane struck whether, in view of global warming and the greater frequency of major storms, Suffolk County needs to change land-use policies. “I think what you say is correct. It’s something to think about when power is restored,” he responded to the reporter. It is, indeed, something to “think about”—and, more importantly, nations taking action to significantly reduce the burning of fossil fuels which is heating up this planet.

As Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of physics at City University of New York, commented on his blog: “Hurricane Sandy’s the hurricane from hell. It broke all records…Is this related to global warming? First, there is no smoking gun, no conclusive evidence…However, the signs are not good. Second, global warming is heating up the…waters, and warm water is the basic energy source driving a hurricane….So global warming is actually the weather on steroids. This is consistent with the 100 year floods, 100 year forest fires, 100 year droughts that we seem to have every few years. So is this the new normal? We cannot say with certainty, but a case can be made that this wacky weather is, in part, driven by global warming.”

And, yes, land-use policies on the coast need to change—especially the use of tax dollars “encouraging people to live in harm’s way,” as the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, put it in a statement.

“The storm should heighten awareness about the dangers of federal policies that encourage development in risk-prone areas,” said R Street. “Key among these is the National Flood Insurance Program which is expected to pick up as much as half of the $20 billion in economic losses Sandy is projected to produce. The 44-year-old NFIP is the federal government’s second largest fiscal liability, behind only Social Security, with taxpayers on the hook for the program’s $1.25 trillion of coverage.”

Private insurance companies are reluctant to insure houses built on shifting sands in the teeth of the ocean, so the U.S. government—under enormous pressure of the beachfront homeowner lobby—has filled in with our tax dollars.

Then there’s the Army Corps of Engineers and beachfront homeowners forever pushing for sand-dumping or “beach replenishment.” As Eli Lehrer, R Street’s president, said in a media conference call in which I participated, “I would say the ideal federal percentage for ‘beach replenishment’ is zero.”

Barrier beaches need to move with nature—for reasons including protecting the mainland—and not be tailored to suit real estate interests.  A pioneer in the science of beaches is Dr. Orrin Pilkey, long-time professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University and founder and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

As Pilkey and Wallace Kaufman wrote in their 1979 book, The Beaches Are Moving, The Drowning of America’s Shoreline, “The beach is land which has given itself up to wind and wave. Every day throughout the life of the earth, the wind and the waves have been at work shaping and reshaping the beach, pushing and pulling almost microscopic grains of sand and sometimes boulders larger than cars…..We ignore this when we built motels, pavilions, boardwalks, and even whole towns on the edge of the ocean….Beaches are not stable, but they are in dynamic equilibrium.”

And as Pilkey and Katharine L. Dixon wrote in their 1994 book, The Corps and the Shore, neither “hard stabilization” or “soft stabilization” of beaches make sense. “Armoring” a beach with stone “groins…destroys the beach. A “groin” will catch some sand and for a time protect a piece of beach, but it does that by blocking sand moving in the ocean’s littoral drift to another beach. As to “soft stabilization”—dumping sand or “beach replenishment”—it is “always expensive and always temporary.”

Then there’s undergrounding of electric lines.

In 1991, East Hampton Natural Resources Director Larry Penny called for putting the electric lines running between Amagansett and Montauk, along the eight-mile Napeague stretch, underground. Many of the poles holding them had gone down that year in Hurricane Bob and the “Perfect Storm.” The Long Island Lighting Company agreed to his request. Although the Napeague stretch was severely battered by Sandy, electricity in most of Montauk stayed on. “They say undergrounding is expensive,” said Penny. “But in the long run, you save a lot of money in tree-trimming, repairs after a storm and economic disruption—the power doesn’t go out.”

And most critically, Sandy underscored a lethal threat involving nuclear power plants on the coast. It impacted several including Oyster Creek in New Jersey where the storm surge from Sandy nearly overwhelmed critical cooling systems, including one maintaining its pool of thousands of hotly radioactive spent fuel rods. Oyster Creek is 90 miles southwest of Long Island. Could a future “superstorm” set off an American Fukushima-like disaster?

As for the Long Island Power Authority, it was created in 1985 to replace LILCO as a democratically-based public power entity.  (LILCO also failed miserably to restore electricity after Hurricane Gloria of that year.) The members of the LIPA board were to be elected and this, it was seen, would provide for accountability, with Long Islanders determining, democratically, how their utility functioned, and would provide, too, for Long Island’s energy future to be planned democratically.

Instead, then Governor Mario Cuomo, after LIPA was established, postponed elections to its board and his successor, Governor George Pataki, formally eliminated having LIPA elections.

LIPA board members ended up being selected by Albany’s heralded “three-men-in-a-room”—the governor, State Assembly speaker and State Senate leader. Its current chairman and most of its members have no background in energy issues.

Sandy and the way LIPA has handled it cry out for LIPA returning to its original democratic vision—so it can truly be the peoples’ utility. “Shame on LIPA. Shame on its Board of Directors. No Lights, No Heat. No End in Sight,” said the placard yesterday.

Through a democratic process, far more could be done than simply declaring, “Shame on LIPA. Shame on its Board of Directors”—although this must now be said. If, as originally envisioned, the trustee positions at LIPA were subject to a vote by Long Islanders, people could take decisive action and make changes so clearly necessary at LIPA in the wake of Sandy.

 

Karl Grossman has covered Long Island politics for over 50 years.

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