Gustavson Column: Hurricane Sandy was not just a fluke

TROY GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Some of the less common debris found on the shore along Rabbit Lane in East Marion post-superstorm Sandy.

Friends from around the country have been grilling us recently about how we survived Hurricane Sandy. They’ve seen the coverage of the aftermath, and they want to know if our house by the sea is still standing.

The answer is yes, we respond, but neighbors not far from our home were much less fortunate.

Numerous waterfront homes on Rabbit Lane in East Marion, which we can see across Orient Harbor from the base of our street, appeared to be irreparably destroyed. Based on our personal Sandy experience — some downed branches, some downed wires, power lost for a few days — the level of devastation on Rabbit Lane was difficult to fathom as we walked through that community the day following the storm. When you see items of clothing and family photos and record albums lying in the soggy sand, you know people’s lives have been changed forever.

So, where do we go from here? How do we help those whose homes have been destroyed? And what do we do to guard against the same thing happening again in the future?

It should be self evident to all of us that this most recent storm was neither an aberration nor an anomaly. It is our future. Despite the head-in-the-sand naysayers out there, global warming is quite real and here to stay — unless, by some highly unlikely stroke of recognition mankind wakes up in time to stall or reverse this destructive course we’ve set. But don’t bet on it. Much more likely is more of the same — melting ice caps, rising sea levels, more intense and more frequent storms and more coastal devastation.

One of the most logical things to do, of course, would be to pull back from the shoreline and let Nature reclaim the territory where we never should have settled in the first place, including the barrier islands that stretch from Key West to the maritime provinces of Canada. And that means no costly beach replenishment and no new construction in the flood zone.

But that’s not going to happen, either. Which leaves us with existing requirements, which are a little unclear because of the unprecedented nature of this most recent storm. (For example, in the process of gathering information for this column, I was at first unable to determine exact post-Sandy building height requirements — even after making direct inquiries at Town Hall and with the relevant federal agency in New York and Washington.)

Nevertheless, Southold Town’s chief building inspector, Mike Verity, reports the wheels already have been set in motion for some big changes for waterfront communities like Rabbit Lane. When I spoke to him on Tuesday, he was getting ready to meet with a representative of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), the outfit that ultimately determines what affected homeowners can and cannot do in the wake of a storm like Sandy.

If, for example, a house in a high-risk area — where there’s a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage -— suffers more than 50 percent damage, it may not be rebuilt in its former configuration. In Southold it must be raised between six and 15 feet above the relevant flood zone and the owner must pay for flood insurance if there is a mortgage from a federally regulated or insured lender.  (According to FEMA’s website, “Flood insurance isn’t federally required in moderate-to-low areas, but it is recommended for all property owners and renters.”)

You might think there would be some resistance to these FEMA regs, but Mr. Verity says local residents whose homes were severely damaged by Sandy seem to have read the handwriting on the wall. “Most of them are willing to make adjustments,” he said. “People know what has to be done, and they’re making the adjustments because they won’t want it to happen again.”

But it will, of course.

So, rather than throw our hands up in the air to scratch our heads on the subject of global warming, what can each of us do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint? Here’s a list of 10 things I’m doing, or plan to do in the near future, and I’d be interested to hear some other suggestions from you, dear reader. Please send them to [email protected] and I’ll share some of the best ones in a future column.

Troy’s Top Ten: 1. Use my 75 mpg Honda scooter whenever possible. 3. Better yet, walk or use the bicycle. 3. Take public transportation whenever possible. 4. Don’t buy any more of those stupid plastic water bottles. 5. Turn off the lights. 6. Turn down the heat. 7. Lighten up on the “dangers” of nuclear power. 8. Help deliver more local news via the Internet instead of via newsprint. 9. Plant some trees. 10. Spend more time in our off-the-grid cabin.

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