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Build parks, not homes, on beaches: lessons from Superstorm Sandy


In this picture taken Oct. 29 2012, storm surge pushed up by Sandy floods homes in Hampton Bays, New York. The superstorm killed over 159 people and damaged more than 650,000 homes. (Reuters photos)

It was uncanny. 

A few days before Superstorm Sandy hit the New York and New Jersey coastline on Oct. 29 2012, scientists from the City University of New York’s (CUNY) College of Staten Island had finished the most detailed model to date of the region’s potential for damage from big storms.

So when the waters from Hurricane Sandy receded from Staten Island, Alan Benimoff, a geology professor at CUNY, went out to map the high-water marks in the flooded areas.

He found his team’s pre-Sandy model had been bang on.

Sandy killed more than 155 people, damaged over 650,000 homes and caused over $50 billion in damage when it made landfall in October last year.

Yet future storms could be worse, according to Benimoff and his colleagues.

Their paper, to be presented at the 2013 Geological Society of America meet in Denver, will say how a combination of rising sea level and more frequent and severe hurricanes could push Atlantic water much higher.

Staten Island and Long Island, the scientists’ flood model predicts, would again flood in low-lying areas and could even surpass Sandy levels. “In Manhattan, the storm surge could extend past the low areas that flooded in Sandy, which included Battery Park subway tunnels, the Financial District, and a 14th Street electrical substation.”

This is what Benimoff and his colleagues at CUNY recommend:

* Protect the existing natural barriers — the beaches and the dunes.

* Build them higher.

* Rezone in the flood zone to prevent home construction. Buy properties and turn them into parks, which will soak up floodwaters and partially protect the islands’ higher lands.

* Engineering solutions such as sea barriers will not only be expensive but also protect one stretch of beach at the expense of its neighbour.

* Teach coastal residents how to survive superstorms: watch weather forecasts, evacuate early, don’t seek refuge in basements, know your area’s high ground and, if faced with rapidly rising waters, go there.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star’s environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh


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