Suffolk Close Up: Living on the edge — Part III

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Global warming is producing atom bomb versions of hurricanes.

That was the case with Hurricane Dorian and other Category 5 (winds at 157 miles per hour or higher, which is the most destructive level) and Category 4 hurricanes (winds of 130 to 156 miles per hour) that have been developing with frequency in recent years.

Long Island and Shelter Island avoided a Dorian direct hit. But as U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared last week at a press conference in Nassau County, major hurricanes are in the offing. He held up in one hand a photo from space of Dorian, and in his other one of Sandy, a hurricane that switched to being a “super-storm” when it struck Long Island with 80 miles per hour winds in 2012, and did enormous damage.

The senator declared: “This was Sandy … This is Dorian. We’re not saying Dorian will hit, but in the next few years there will be more hurricanes like this. We’ve got to make sure that if, God forbid, they come our way, we’re protected.” He advocated an extension of an Army Corps of Engineers “Back Bay Study” in Nassau on which $3 million has already been spent looking into bulkheading, tidal gates and other measures.

Long Island and Shelter Island need to “be protected” but, to be realistic, “protection” from a Category 5 or 4 hurricane is illusory. Consider the video out of the Bahamas last week of wreckage, mile after mile, houses and businesses torn apart. It was complete devastation. Could the folks of the Bahamas have been “protected” from Dorian with its sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and gusts up to 220?

Regarded as the worst hurricane to hit this area was called the Long Island Express and also Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Hurricanes then were not given human names. And there was no Saffir-Simpson Scale to categorize storms then, but it has since been considered as a Category 3, or winds between 111 and 129 miles per hour.

We need to put our full energy into strongly reducing the causes of global warming and climate change that have heated the waters on which hurricanes feed, thus producing super-hurricanes.

As The Atlantic magazine said in a headline last week: “Hurricane Dorian Is Not A Freak Storm. Its record-breaking power is in line with recent, worrisome trends.” The article noted that “since records began in 1851, only one storm in the Atlantic had more powerful winds.”

As the headline in The Guardian newspaper stated: “Global heating made Hurricane Dorian bigger, wetter — and more deadly.” The sub-head: “We know that warm waters fuel hurricanes, and Dorian was strengthened by waters well above average temperatures.”

This article related how the Bahamas is seen as “a dream vacation spot. But Hurricane Dorian turned that dream into a nightmare. And the worst part is this is only the beginning. Because unless we confront the climate crisis, warming will turn more and more of our fantastic landscapes, cities we call paradise and other dream destinations into nightmarish hellscapes.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has believed that sea walls, rock groins, revetments, bulkheads and other “hard structures” will “fortify” the shore and fend off hurricanes.

A major Army Corps scheme, which I first started writing about when I began as a journalist in Suffolk in 1962, was its then-new plan to provide for “hurricane and storm damage reduction” for 83 miles of the south shore from Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point. The plan is still on the books, more than a half-century later, with today a price tag of more than $1 billion.

Seeing the terrible impacts of Dorian — the way it left Hope Town in the Bahamas in shambles — is personal. Years ago, fellow journalist Andrew Botsford, who had captained a fishing boat down there, recommended Hope Town as a marvelous vacation destination. Hope Town is skirted by coral reefs — snorkeling is sublime — and there are beautiful beaches. There’s the red-and-white candy-striped Elbow Reef lighthouse. And a remarkable history.

English loyalists migrated to Hope Town after the American Revolution bringing with them colonial architecture. In Hope Town these buildings are painted in bright Bahamian pastel colors. The royalists mixed with the black inhabitants to create an integrated society.

Last week, there were photos on the Internet of where we stayed, Hope Town Harbour Lodge before and after Dorian. The damage is severe.

For Hope Town and so much of the rest of the Bahamas, it’s paradise lost, at least for a time. And, as Senator Schumer said, more bad hurricanes can be expected. We could be hit next.

I’ll conclude this series of columns on climate change next week on how we can and must challenge the causes of climate change and global warming.