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The lessons of Sandy

Gene Lyons

“Experience keeps a dear [i.e. expensive] school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.”

— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, I confess feeling an odd sense of excited foreboding. As a New Jersey expatriate — I followed an Arkansas girl home from school and never looked back — I haven’t lived there since college but haven’t entirely lost my feeling for the state either. The place where you spent your first 20 years leaves an indelible mark.

Having spent parts of every summer of my childhood on the beaches and boardwalk at Seaside Heights, I also had vivid memories of a charismatic Rutgers professor warning a lecture hall filled with Jersey boys that allowing urban development on the state’s Atlantic Ocean front was dangerously short-sighted and that a day of reckoning would surely come.

The kind of cooperation between political rivals … shouldn’t be remarkable; it should be normal.

His name was Melvin G. Marcus, a physical geographer with an imposing physical presence and a passion for teaching students how the world works — which to him meant a clear-eyed understanding of the planet’s landforms, climate and weather. Although a liberal arts major, I found his lectures enthralling and often funny.

After a nor’easter opened a new inlet between Seaside Park and Belmar that winter, taking out five or six unoccupied summer homes, professor Marcus’s zeal could hardly be contained. An Air Force pilot during the Korean War, he showed us aerial photographs of the string of barrier beaches — basically overgrown sandbars — separating the Atlantic Ocean and a series of shallow bays all along the New Jersey coastline.

Come the inevitable hurricane, he warned, and scores of New Jersey resort towns from Sandy Hook to Cape May would be washed into the ocean. Erecting permanent structures on such terrain was an exercise in futility. Better to preserve the barrier islands as public parkland. Build nothing on sand that you can’t afford to see pounded to splinters by the sea was his advice.

Needless to say, such warnings are rarely heeded. Not when there’s money to be made. The more comfortable we grow, the less respectful we are of nature’s destructive power.

Watching the massive hurricane — almost 1,000 miles across, the largest tropical system ever recorded in the Atlantic basin — making its fateful turn toward the Jersey shoreline, it was easy to imagine, if impossible to fully comprehend, what would happen.

From childhood, I knew there were no “heights,” or even modest hills, near Seaside Heights — nor anywhere on the Jersey Shore. At high tide, a 12-foot storm surge would send the Atlantic Ocean rolling clear across to Barnegat Bay, demolishing virtually everything in between.

Goodbye boardwalk, rollercoaster, clam bars, stately old vacation homes and bayside shacks. Goodbye hedge-fund McMansions with stunning ocean views. Goodbye, Jersey Shore. The storm took out electrical power for millions, along with potable water and passable roads. Hurricane Sandy did an estimated $50 billion in property damage, the second most destructive in U.S. history after Katrina.

The same was true for low-lying properties along Long Island, N.Y. and Staten Island in the mouth of New York Harbor. A large proportion of the storm’s more than 100 deaths happened there in neighborhoods built on sandy marshland that likewise should never have been urbanized.

They will, however, be rebuilt, as New Orleans was rebuilt. Foolishly, perhaps, but as in Louisiana, the ruined neighborhoods are pretty much all the people who live there have.

Had it not been for NOAA weather satellite predictions, Sandy could have been far worse. Prayerfully, no future storms will rival the hurricane that struck the barrier island city of Galveston, Texas, without warning in September 1900, killing an estimated 8,000 people.

For all that, maybe Hurricane Sandy can re-teach Americans a couple of things many of us have forgotten. First: Whether it’s a Democratic campaign slogan or not, we are all in this together. Glib talk about states’ rights and privatization in a disaster of this magnitude is frankly childish. The kind of cooperation between political rivals like President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shouldn’t be remarkable; it should be normal.

Second, although we’ve always had our share of charlatans and religious cranks, Americans have been a practical-minded people, resistant to abstract ideology and respectful of scientific expertise. By now, it should now be clear to all but the most purblind that global climate change constitutes a growing threat many times more dangerous than, say, Iran.

I’d like to have talked these things over with professor Marcus, both as a man of science and a connoisseur of human folly. Alas, a Rutgers colleague told me that he never did get to see his prediction to us Jersey kids fulfilled. After a distinguished academic career, Melvin Marcus died as he’d lived — suffering a fatal heart attack during a scientific expedition to a Colorado glacier.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”


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