This thanksgiving, I’m going to be thinking a lot about salt marshes. I live in Brooklyn, NY. My house is high up on the hill of Park Slope–so my parents didn’t get hit by flooding. But half of Lower Manhattan is still soggy from floodwaters that city workers tirelessly working succeeded in draining it back into the Harbor less than a week ago. Most of the NYC subway lines are back up and running, but even they will be showing signs of wear from the sludgy waters for years to come. The famous boardwalks of Seaside, NJ are torn to shreds and thousands of homes up and down the East Coast are damaged or completely washed away. Sandy was almost 1,000 miles wide when it slammed into the New Jersey coast, so of course we felt it up here in Boston, with many people without power for at least a few days.
The news pouring in of many community-based efforts to rebuild, and help pick up the pieces after Hurricane Sandy have been so inspiring to me. It makes me miss being home, and while I am in Brooklyn I’m going to see what I can do to volunteer my time. But the whole event makes me wonder, if as some have posited this kind of weather event is going to become a common occurrence some day, how do we protect ourselves against the onslaught of mother nature?
It’s been more than three weeks since Hurricane Sandy blew through the Eastern Seaboard, and many in Far Rockaway, Queens, in Staten Island, and in New Jersey are without power, without heat, and losing hope that they will ever receive help from government personnel and utilities. Federal flood insurance is even spread thin with the pressure put on it by all the people who’s homes were destroyed. Next week I’m going home for Thanksgiving break to visit my family, and I am itching to get out to the Rockaway to see what I can do to help, at least for one day. At the very least, I would like to see with my own eyes the destruction that’s left, talk to the people struggling to clean up, and bring a camera so I can put on my photo-journalism cap and maybe inspire others to come and help, too.
Perhaps we can learn from the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy if we take a hint from New York’s natural history. Brooklyn was originally called Breukelen, Dutch for “broken land,” because it was criss-crossed with small streams and low-lying marshes. Manhattan is an island mostly of bedrock, but both Manhattan and Brooklyn have lots of buildings resting on artificial landfill, much like most of Boston’s Back Bay area. In fact, satellite photos of the flooded streets of Manhattan show that they match up quite roughly with the island’s pre-landfill extent. Much of the Jersey Shore, especially Seaside, is made up of artificial beaches and barrier islands that have been built up with tens of thousands of tons of sand from the Atlantic ocean floor. There’s much debate over whether to continue this tactic or to focus on rebuilding townships more inland, away from the coast.
The alternatives lead me back to salt marshes. Much of the destruction, many ecologists and wetland vegetation experts say, could have been averted if we hadn’t drained and paved over so many natural barriers to the ocean’s onslaught. Salt marshes and wetlands are natural barrier’s against tidal energy, and the force of ocean surges. Civil engineers in the mayor’s office in NYC are imagining (just in time for Movember) adding a salt-marsh “beard” to the southern tip of Manhattan, to absorb the tidal energy of future storms. Traditional moves like seawalls and seagates just don’t cut it for New York Harbor, which is not just oceanic, but deals with the force of the Hudson River, which becomes a tidal estuary by the time it reaches the Bronx.
But maybe while the squints are figuring out how to avoid another natural catastrophe on the shorelines of New York and New Jersey, the city and state emergency workers can take a hint from Occupy Sandy and other relief efforts and prevent the disaster that’s still happening on the shores right now. Get these people some food, water, heat and electricity. Help them, please. Fix this broken land.
The author is a former CS staff writer, graduating this December. Donations to the Hurricane Sandy relief effort can be given to the Red Cross, to the Occupy Sandy “wedding registry”, and many other organizations. Please give what you can.