I was born in New Jersey and grew up spending summers on the Jersey shore. We gathered every August in Stone Harbor. I have wonderful memories of playing all day with my brother and our friends in the sand and waves. It has been awful to see the devastation and loss of life in New Jersey and across the entire Mid-Atlantic/Northeast region.
Big storms and hurricanes are becoming more frequent and more severe. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo commented in a press conference Tuesday that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now.” These mega-storms not only cause death and destruction in coastal communities, they cause a ripple effect of public safety, health, and economic consequences including flooding, power outages, sewage spills, drinking water advisories, crippled transportation systems, and…rats.
Watching the news reports, I was struck by the words people used to describe the flooding. They talked about the ocean turning into a river as it coursed down city streets. They talked about rivers looking like the ocean, with white-capped waves.
Oceans become rivers. Rivers become oceans. Is this the ‘new normal’?
Climate change is forcing us to grapple with new realities and difficult questions. What kind of infrastructure do we need? How can we protect our communities? Where, and how, do we rebuild?
A report by American Rivers, “Natural Defenses: Safeguarding Communities from Floods” offers solutions that help protect public safety by working with nature. The report calls for renewed investment in protecting the nation’s natural defenses – our wetlands, rivers and floodplains – because it’s the most reliable, cost-effective, and flexible path toward helping communities stay safe.
It’s a strategy that includes:
- Protecting healthy landscapes like wetlands, rivers, floodplains and forests that store water and offer storm protection, among other services;
- Restoring degraded wetlands, rivers, floodplains, and upland areas so that they can better store flood water and provide recharge to streams and aquifers; and
- Replicating natural systems in urban settings, by using green roofs, permeable pavement, trees, and rain gardens to ensure that more water is absorbed into the ground. This helps guard against flash flooding and prevents stormwater and sewage pollution.
Another report, “Banking on Green: How Green Infrastructure Can Save Municipalities Money and Provide Economic Benefits Community-wide,” published by American Rivers, the Water Environment Federation, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and ECONorthwest, examines how green infrastructure can lower flood damage and costs.
While these “green infrastructure” approaches won’t altogether replace traditional engineering and “gray infrastructure” like flood walls, levees and dams, they should be part of the backbone of our water management strategy and integrated with those traditional approaches.
Eileen Fretz, Flood Policy Director for American Rivers, noted that a key piece of the puzzle is getting community leaders to make wise choices about where and how we rebuild after disasters. “Cutting through red tape to rebuild faster can help communities get back on their feet. But helping them rebuild better will keep them standing tall into the future,” she said.
We need to learn from disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the record Midwest floods of 2011, and now Hurricane Sandy. We can’t continue with an outdated 19th century-approach to infrastructure. Protecting our natural resources and our communities requires a 21st century-approach that combines traditional solutions with innovative green infrastructure.
It will make our communities safer, healthier, more beautiful – and all around better – places to live for generations to come.