Skip to main content

Rebuilding after Sandy is too big a risk

By Carl Safina, Special to CNN
December 10, 2012 -- Updated 0352 GMT (1152 HKT)
Debris from Superstorm Sandy is seen on Thursday in Long Branch, New Jersey.
Debris from Superstorm Sandy is seen on Thursday in Long Branch, New Jersey.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Safina: New York, New Jersey has been hit with two hurricanes in two years
  • He says the two choices are to barricade the coast or retreat
  • Safina: Rebuilding with federally subsidized insurance puts lives, investments in danger

Editor's note: Carl Safina is a MacArthur Fellow, Pew Fellow and Guggenheim Fellow, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University and president of Blue Ocean Institute. He is the author of six books and many articles about nature and the sea, and hosts "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina" on PBS television and online.

(CNN) -- Superstorm Sandy has caused more damage, death and homelessness in New York and New Jersey than any climate-related event in living memory. Yet with two damaging hurricanes two years in a row, and with what science is telling us, this does not feel like a once-in-a-lifetime event. It feels like a trend.

With what we know about rising sea level and what we understand about the rate of world warming and how tropical storms pull their strength from the temperature of the ocean, Sandy feels like a very harshly spoken word to the wise.

And so the answer to the question "What should we do next?" may be difficult, with truly profound implications. I think we really have only two viable long-term building options: 1) Barricade. 2) Retreat.

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

Rebuilding is not a viable option. And what would we barricade? The whole Long Island to southern New Jersey area? Boston to Washington? The East Coast?

Opinion: What's next after Superstorm Sandy?

The Netherlands relies on dikes to keep out the sea. There are gates in England to close rivers to storm surges of the kind that last week blew open my friend's garage door on 22nd Street east of 11th Avenue in New York City, suddenly washing him to the back of his studio, submerging him briefly, floating tons of his art-making tools and ruining decades of drawings and the tools of his trade. Others fared worse, of course.

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.



One of my neighbors nearly drowned trying to walk from her home to higher ground half a mile away; two unknown heroes in survival suits wading in waist-high water appeared at the height of the storm and pulled her and her swimming dogs into a canoe and walked them to safety. Her house remains habitable, unlike many others along the coast of Long Island, New York and New Jersey.

Map: See images of destruction, recovery across the East Coast

By flooding areas that few suspected were within the reach of seawater, Sandy told us that the "coast" is a wider ribbon than we thought it was last week.

So for the hard questions: Should people rebuild? Should the whole country pay for it?

I certainly love shoreside living. I love walking the beach in the morning with my dogs. I love my boat and the people at Montauk's Westlake Marina where I keep it.

Red Cross under fire over Sandy relief
Sandy leaves Far Rockaway in cold, dark
Disabled mom copes with Sandy aftermath
Volunteers help victims of Sandy

I love many facets of the always dynamic water borderlands, the birds and fishes, the turtles and dolphins and other creatures who, in their seasons, draw tight to our coastline. There is magic. And part of that magic is its timelessness. And part of the timelessness is that as the coast changes, the coast is what remains. And yet it moves.

I have federal flood insurance, thank you. But really, it's time you considered cutting me off.

I am not against people taking their chances along the shore. Risk is part of what draws us. But the risk should be ours to take and bear if we want to.

Federal flood insurance is a counterproductive way for the rest of the country to subsidize people -- putting billions of dollars and millions of lives at continuous risk, encouraging wholly inappropriate development. And it encourages larger, more expensive homes (often second homes) than fewer people would build if their insurance premiums reflected real risk.

In fact, few private insurers will touch most of these places. Let us think twice, fully comprehend that the stakes are ours alone, and then let those of us willing to risk it take our chances.

The government should at this time help victims get their lives back on track. But no federal dollars should magically appear for rebuilding in flood-prone areas. The spots that flood will take repeated hits. Everyone knows this. To help people rebuild in those places is to help put lives and investment in harm's way. It's foolish.

Where I live, the houses that stayed dry are the ones just high enough to let water flow around into the extensive, protected wetlands. The houses that flooded stand where water goes on its way to wetlands.

Eatocracy: Volunteers dish up support after Sandy

Wetlands are wet for a reason. We would be wise to rebuild in ways that let water flow around dwellings into restored wetlands. Then, two things would start happening:

One: Wetlands, recovered oyster reefs, fish nurseries and wildlife would all be part of a revitalized coastal protection strategy that simultaneously includes recovery of valuable living resources.

Two: The taxpaying public could begin to regain access to the coast for recreation, access too often denied by private development that is largely enabled by taxpayer-funded federal flood insurance.

Eliminating taxpayer-funded flood insurance to people now insured in low, flood-prone areas (including where I live) can be done compassionately, honoring existing insured persons with funding in the aftermath of this wreckage.

But importantly, insurance that would up to now go for rebuilding should be redirected toward relocation and resettlement. That is easier said; for many, relocation would be wrenching. But losing your home or your life can be wrenching, too.

Insurance for new building in flood-prone areas should be ended. People who really want to take their chances should do just that, or pay real commercial insurance premiums if they can find a willing insurer. Eventually even Lloyd's of London will likely decide it's had enough. Insurers must be realistic about risk in ways politicians don't have to be.

Will we choose a wiser course that recognizes that we're still in the path of the next big storm? I wouldn't bet on it.

The nonviable option -- to keep rebuilding all the time -- is what people will likely choose. From a decision-making viewpoint, it's easier to make no decision. But the frequency of big storms appears likely to increase in the Northeast. It's not a time for easy decisions, because we won't be faced with easy events.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl Safina.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT