Rebuild or Retreat: Is It Time to Give up on Places Like the Rockaways?
My girlfriend and I ventured last spring to the Rockaways, the narrow finger of beach that stands like a bodyguard between New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. We wandered by surfers skimming across gentle rollers and shorebirds scurrying in the wash, and both of us wondered how such a serene place could exist in the same city as Midtown Manhattan.
This past Sunday, we encountered a very different scene: instead of strolling along the iconic boardwalk, we were excavating shattered chunks of it from people’s front yards. The peninsula had borne the brunt of Superstorm Sandy’s assault, and three weeks later it remains devastated. Residents continue to contend with no power, no heat, and, most ignominiously, Long Island’s sewage. (You know the situation is bad when Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian group that typically operates in chronically distressed countries like Haiti and Sierra Leone, shows up on American soil for the first time ever.) For three weeks, the chorus emerging from the neglected barrier island has been some variation of “Where’s the #@&-ing help?!” (This is Queens, after all.)
By the time we got there, the relief cavalry had finally begun to arrive -- albeit slowly. Dump trucks and heavy machinery cruised the streets, scooping up mountains of rubble. Electricians in cherry pickers disentangled snarled nests of power lines every third block. And vast armies of volunteers -- from members of the Occupy Sandy movement to Seventh-Day Adventists to Bill Clinton himself -- had come to pick up garbage and dispense supplies.
But even now, as the power gradually blinks back on and the mangled cars vanish from the sidewalks, the Rockaways still face enormous challenges -- not least of which are the vast drifts of sand that the storm surge lifted off the beach and dumped in the basements and yards of hundreds of oceanfront homes. Up and down Shore Front Parkway: sand and more sand, dunes and waves and drifts. The air remains hazy and pale, thanks to the frequent dust storms kicked up by all the wailing fire trucks that barrel through intersections strung with still-dark traffic lights.
One house we visited welcomed us in with the words “Help Needed” scrawled in green marker across a square of plywood that had been propped up against a nest of ruined bicycles. In its dank basement, three Occupy Sandy volunteers stripped busted pipes and shoveled away the last of the sand. “Finally hit solid ground yesterday morning,” grunted a volunteer named Ryan as she climbed the concrete stairs, “and it was like: Thank God! There is a floor!”
Out in the front yard, the situation was still critical. Towering wet berms of sand had been hurled up against the house next door, preventing its owners from getting inside. For three hours we hacked away at the drifts with shovels, relocating hundreds of pounds of sand to the curb for the Department of Sanitation to (hopefully) haul away. Our efforts felt as much archaeological as restorative: entombed within the huge dunes was the detritus of dozens of lives, artifacts that Sandy had swept from streets and beaches and deposited here. Our shovels overturned bricks of someone’s patio, shards of a chimney, strips of siding, butterfly nets, a faded photo of two boys on a see-saw, sections of steel pipes, light fixtures, a toy horse, and the inevitable condom.
We continued digging, endlessly moving sand from this pile here to that pile there, a job both fulfilling and futile-seeming. By 1:00 pm, we had unearthed most of the backyard -- and had finally hit soil. My shovel flipped over a bulb, just starting to sprout; Elise unearthed a clump of green onions that smelled like spring in her palm. The homeowner, a woman named Mary, came from around the side of the house. “Sorry I’ve got you working out here like it’s the Middle Ages,” she called as she approached. She gazed down at the plants in our palms.
“Looks like you’ve found my garden,” Mary said, more amazed than mournful. She gestured to a choked cluster of dead branches poking from the top of a new sand dune. “That was my lilac.” She picked up the broken fronds of what looked like a cedar. “My little evergreen.” A brown twisted vine ran across the sand and grabbed at our ankles. “And that’s a twenty-year-old wisteria.” Decades to grow, hours to kill.
When we asked her if she wanted to save the bulbs for replanting, she sighed and rolled one in her hand. “Nah, don’t think I will,” she said. Still, Mary didn’t throw it away. Instead, she placed the bulb carefully on a plastic table strewn with her belongings, as if she might just change her mind.
In the weeks since Sandy, there’s been plenty of discussion about how to prevent such a disaster from repeating itself, most of it focused on infrastructural improvements. Should the city rebuild the wetlands and oyster beds that once fringed Manhattan? Create absorptive streets capable of swallowing incoming waves? Construct massive tidal gates across the East River, Arthur Kill, and Verrazano Narrows? Invariably, it seems, these proposals are dismissed as inadequate, impossible, or prohibitively expensive.
Along with restoration, resilience and reconstruction, another “re” word has crept into New York’s options: retreat. Most modeling suggests that, while run-of-the-mill hurricanes may not become more common in coming years, climate change will indeed spawn ultra-destructive superstorms more frequently. Add giant storms to higher sea levels and it sure looks like Sandy represents not an isolated disaster, but an early salvo in climate change’s assault on our coastlines.
Knowing that places like the Rockaways lie in harm’s way, should we encourage people like Mary to reconstruct their homes at all? For decades, the federal government has been doing just that through its FEMA-administered National Flood Insurance Program, which provides money for people to rebuild in the wake of catastrophic flooding. And while this generosity is surely appreciated by communities, it has led to some truly shortsighted decisions. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, taxpayers have spent $80 million since 1979 reconstructing houses and bridges on Alabama’s tiny Dauphin Island -- even though it gets slammed by hurricanes about once every three years.
What’s more, the people living in the riskiest places don’t necessarily pay higher premiums. Since 1988, for example, Dauphin Island’s residents have received $72.2 million in flood relief, but paid out only $9.3 million. That’s why, whenever the nation is hit by particularly destructive events, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the flood insurance program finds itself deeply in the red. And thanks to Sandy, 2012 will be the program’s worst year for claims since Katrina: by some estimates, the program now has to make up a shortfall of $7 billion.
Consequently, reforming, or even disbanding, the flood insurance program has become the rare cause célèbre capable of uniting environmentalists and libertarians. Groups like SmarterSafer.org advocate eliminating the subsidies that keep flood insurance premiums artificially low and creating actuarial tables for coastal areas that better reflect flood risk.
Of course, without the program’s largesse providing a backstop, lots of places, from the Outer Banks to parts of New Orleans to perhaps the Rockaways, would become virtually uninhabitable for all but the wealthiest homeowners. Private insurers perceive flood insurance as too risky to offer, and without insurance, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to build on unstable, wave-prone barrier islands. In the program's absence, a whole lot of people would have little choice but to retreat inland.
There’s no question that, if doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, thoughtlessly rebuilding communities in low-lying coastal areas is certifiably nuts. The National Flood Insurance Program does need to be drastically reformed, and the perverse incentives it creates – the constant reconstruction of homes and buildings that are doomed from the instant that the first brick is laid – need to be eliminated. We need to change the way we conceptualize our relationship with the coast, to recognize its risks as clearly as we do its rewards. Inevitably, that will mean letting some places slip into the rising seas.
But take a look at a map of the United States, and you quickly start to wonder: if we’re going to discourage people from living near natural hazards, where, exactly, are they supposed to live? We’ve already established that much of the Southeast is too exposed to flooding to be habitable; ditto for the Mississippi floodplains. Sorry, Oklahoma: Tornado Alley is definitely condemned. Now that we’re experiencing hotter, drier summers and vast beetle kills, Colorado and the other mountain states lie squarely in a wildfire hot zone. And don’t feel too smug, Californians: if your house is on top of a fault line, you’ve got to relocate. Pretty much all that’s left is the Midwest … except, oh, right, this summer’s brutal droughts basically turned the Corn Belt into a natural disaster area.
As I watched Mary direct the volunteers scurrying about her ruined home, the resolve to rebuild already etched in her face, I wondered about the implications of abandoning the Rockaways and other regions. What hazard-free cities and states are willing accept thousands of de facto refugees? What cultural jewels will be lost if the Rockaways, and neighborhoods like it, are disbanded? And what will happen to the psyches of the Rockaways’ residents, many of them already among New York City’s poorest and most marginalized people, when they’re scattered to the winds? Who will take them in, and at what cost? Retreat may indeed be the only viable option for the Rockaways and other hazard-prone areas, but let's not push people from their neighborhoods glibly or hastily. Coastal communities are more than just drowning infrastructure.