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
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT