Skip to main content

What's next after Superstorm Sandy?

By E. Robert Thieler, Nathaniel Plant and Hilary Stockdon, Special to CNN
November 10, 2012 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
Cleaning crews work in Manhattan's financial district following damage from Superstorm Sandy on Monday, November 12. <strong><a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/30/us/gallery/ny-sandy/index.html' target='_blank'>View photos of New York's recovery.</a></strong> Cleaning crews work in Manhattan's financial district following damage from Superstorm Sandy on Monday, November 12. View photos of New York's recovery.
HIDE CAPTION
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
11.sandy.damage.1030
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • E. Robert Thieler, Nathaniel Plant, Hilary Stockdon: We need a solution after Sandy
  • They say during Superstorm Sandy, coastlines experienced massive overwash
  • Restoring the barrier islands to their pre-storm state increase long-term risks, they say
  • Thieler, Plant, Stockdon: It's better to move up and away from the beachfront

Editor's note: E. Robert Thieler is a research geologist, Nathaniel G. Plant and Hilary F. Stockdon are research oceanographers at the U.S. Geological Survey.

(CNN) -- Superstorm Sandy has taken a tragic toll on the residents of the mid-Atlantic's barrier islands. All along the coast, hundreds of homes were lost, and thousands of people still have no power after Sandy wreaked havoc. The impact is not unlike many other destructive recent storms in the United States, such as Ivan, Katrina and Ike. So what can be done?

In their natural state, the barrier islands that line about half of the U.S. coast, including most of the region affected by Sandy, are mobile and change constantly in response to wind, waves, tides and sea level. In fact, these islands owe their very existence to storms and the long-term rise in sea level of the past several thousand years.

But much of today's coastline is a complex hybrid of a natural, dynamic landform overprinted with decades of immobile human development. Taking the dynamic nature of these barrier islands into account as we rebuild after major storms can help reduce the vulnerability of the local infrastructure to the inevitable next big storm.

E. Robert Thieler
E. Robert Thieler
Nathaniel G. Plant
Nathaniel G. Plant
Hilary F. Stockdon
Hilary F. Stockdon

Beaches and dunes are the first line defense from ocean waves and storm surge, protecting the island's interior. When dunes erode and fail, much of the sand is carried up onto the island as overwash. While a failed dune in a coastal community makes it more exposed to the next storm, dune failure can make an undeveloped barrier island stronger by adding elevation to its core. This is how the barrier islands were built in the first place.

During Superstorm Sandy, broad swaths of the coastline from North Carolina to Massachusetts experienced dune failure and massive overwash. The sand washed onto and across the barrier islands, filling roads, yards and living rooms. This overwash sand instantly added several feet of elevation to the islands. On a natural barrier island, this new elevation reduces the chance of inundation from the next storm. And as New Yorkers learned, a couple of feet can make all the difference between inconvenience and catastrophe.

As the army of bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment deployed along the coast suggests, current efforts appear headed to restore the islands to their pre-storm state. Pushing the sand off the streets and back onto the beach removes the elevation that would have added freeboard above future floods. On a developed shore, this excavation of the roads is absolutely necessary to regain the dunes that are the first line of defense. But, everyone must understand that by resetting the island back to pre-storm conditions, the long-term risks are increased.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Then there is the issue of rising seas. Sea level has risen 6 to 9 inches along the New Jersey coast since the last big storm in 1962 (the Ash Wednesday storm). Some residents say the 1962 storm barely reached their doorstep, while this time Superstorm Sandy flooded them by a foot. Although Sandy and the 1962 storm differ in their details, 50 years of sea-level rise certainly allowed water to reach areas that would not have been reached otherwise.

What we know about storms, sea-level rise and barrier island response can be applied to redevelopment of the New Jersey coast.

We can either try to thwart the natural response -- requiring increasing investment in construction and maintenance of storm protection structures -- or adapt by relocating farther away from the beachfront and upward as the barrier islands move.

Staten Island resident: 'Week from hell'
Rebuilding after Sandy
Sandy victims hit by Nor'easter

There is historical precedent for adaptation by moving. In New Jersey, some pre-WWII beachfront communities had moveable houses. In 1888, the Brighton Beach Hotel on Coney Island was moved several hundred feet back from the ocean by six steam locomotives.

There are difficult choices to be made in our response to Superstorm Sandy. Doing nothing other than rebuilding is an easy choice and least expensive in the near-term, unless the next "superstorm" comes next year, or even this winter. Hundreds of miles of the East Coast where dunes were eroded or no longer exist are now more vulnerable than ever.

Protecting the entire coast with coastal structures like sea walls is not feasible or even desirable; there are aspects of coastal armoring that have negative consequences.

A practical response will be a blend of all the realistic options. This requires identifying which areas can adapt best, prioritizing which will receive the most protection and which will receive the least, or even none. This will be a challenging process.

But, if undertaken jointly by citizens, policymakers and scientists, it could be a refreshing response and yield a coastal environment that is more resilient and economically and environmentally sound.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of E. Robert Thieler, Nathaniel G. Plant and Hilary F. Stockdon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT