Suffolk Closeup: Not too early to learn from Sandy

GIANNA VOLPE FILE PHOTO | A view above Shelter Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

As I write this (last Sunday), electricity is still out for thousands of homes and businesses in Suffolk County — and out, too, for thousands of people in Nassau, New York City, as well as a large part of the Northeast. The snaking gasoline lines are unprecedented, eclipsing the situation during the oil crisis of 1973-1974.

It might be premature at this stage to consider lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy but some things are obvious. The so-called “Frankenstorm,” awing us with the power of nature in its fury, has demonstrated the folly of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to dump sand along ocean beaches to supposedly “fortify” them. In a matter of hours, that strategy, along with the sand on the affected Mid-Atlantic coastline, was washed away.

Sandy also brought the issues of climate change and global warming home to us in a hurry. Bloomberg Businessweek, the polar opposite of a radical journal, put Sandy on its cover with the headline: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was asked at a press conference last week whether, in view of global warming and the greater frequency of major storms, Suffolk needs to change its land-use policies. “I think what you say is correct. It’s something to think about when power is restored,” he said.

It is, indeed, something to “think about.” But thinking only goes so far; more importantly, nations should be taking action to significantly reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which is heating up the planet.

Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of physics at City University of New York, commenting on the killer storm, asked, “Is this related to global warming? … 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 [now] 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.”

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, said in a statement last week. “The storm should heighten awareness about the dangers of federal policies that encourage development in risk-prone areas. 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 from the beachfront homeowner lobby — has stepped 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 last week: “I would say the ideal federal percentage for ‘beach replenishment’ is zero.”

Barrier beaches such as those along Suffolk’s south shore need to move with nature to protect the mainland and not be tailored to suit real estate interests. Old-time Long Islanders will tell you that not until “modern” times did people dream of building on barrier beaches.

Then there’s “undergrounding” of electric lines. In 1991, East Hampton Natural Resources Director Larry Penny called for undergrounding the lines running between Amagansett and Montauk, along the eight-mile Napeague stretch. Many of the poles holding lines had gone down that year in Hurricane Bob and the nor’easter later known as “The Perfect Storm” and the Long Island Lighting Company agreed to Mr. Penny’s request. Although the Napeague stretch was severely battered by Sandy, electricity in most of Montauk stayed on.

“They say undergrounding is expensive,” said Mr. Penny last week. “But in the long run, you save a lot of money in tree-trimming, repairs after a storm and economic disruption.”

Sandy underlined a potentially catastrophic consequence involving nuclear power plants. It affected several, including Oyster Creek in New Jersey, where the storm surge nearly overwhelmed critical cooling systems, including one maintaining a pool of thousands of hotly radioactive spent fuel rods. Oyster Creek is 90 miles southwest of Suffolk.

Could a future superstorm set off an American Fukushima-like disaster?