Environment Forum

Disasterology 2: hard questions for Breezy Point homeowners a year after Sandy

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

Breezy Point, Queens, New York:

Of all the New York oceanfront communities that Sandy devastated, Breezy Point on the Rockaway peninsula took some of the hardest blows. Breezy Point, a peninsula on the southern shores of New York City, suffered not just from rain and flooding from the storm surge, but also a fast-moving fire that destroyed 125 homes. The storm knocked down another 230. One year later, the neighborhood is struggling with the aftermath and hard questions about how sustainable it will be after the rebuilding.

On some streets, only the concrete foundations of houses remain. Others are completely gone, leaving nothing but weedy vacant lots in their place. This month, construction crews blanketed the neighborhood as builders put together new structures where the old one-story bungalows used to be.

Mike Schramm, editor of The Rockaway Point newspaper and a volunteer firefighter, recalled for a group of visiting reporters the hellish scene where firefighters were kept from the flames because the burning homes were surrounded by water four feet deep. “It was terrible to just watch it go,” Schramm told the visiting journalists studying New York’s recovery efforts.

Floods? Droughts? Wildfires? Hurricanes? Yes, there is a climate change connection

For years, climate scientists were circumspect when asked if a specific bit of violent weather — for example, Hurricane Irene, the late-summer storm that slammed the heavily populated U.S. East Coast — could be blamed in some way on climate change.

“Climate is what you expect,” the scientists would say, “while weather is what you get.” They would often go on to say that while increasingly severe weather and correspondingly serious costs and consequences were forecast in climate change computer simulations, there was no way to directly blame a given storm on human-generated heat-trapping gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

There still is no direct line between a certain amount of warming and a certain storm, wildfire, drought or flood. But there is a “new normal,” detailed by scientists on a new website . Staffed and advised by some of the most well-known climate change experts in the United States and elsewhere, the site says plainly that what the computer models foretold in 2007 is clearly documented to be occurring.

Did human activities cause the Mississippi River flood?

As the Mississippi River crested at near-record levels near Memphis, Tennessee, a nagging question surfaced at a Capitol Hill briefing: are people to blame? According to one expert on water and hydrology, the answer is closer to yes than no.

“I’m not suggesting these (floods) are caused by climate change, but there’s very clear scientific evidence that the risk of flooding on the Mississippi River is increasing because of human influence,” said Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute.

Human influence comes in at least two ways, Gleick told a briefing that drew congressional staff and personnel from U.S. agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (You can see the briefing slides here.) First, the carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels — cars, factories, power plants — loads the atmosphere with climate-warming greenhouse gas, pushing global mean temperatures higher.

from The Great Debate UK:

SUDS a partial solution to flooding in Britain

BRITAIN/-Susanne Charlesworth is a member of SUDS – Sustainable Drainage Applied Research Group, Coventry University. The opinions expressed are her own.-

The scenes of flooding in Cumbria are a shocking illustration of how Britain's ageing drainage infrastructure is failing.

The function of the majority of drainage structures is to remove water from inhabited areas as soon as possible via so-called receiving watercourses as conduits to carry excess water away. Unfortunately, cities and towns have grown beyond capacity, back-up floodplains are built upon, and water overflow has nowhere to go.

Are hurricanes, India floods signs of global warming?

Adrian (R) and his son John Herbert walk past an overturned travel trailer in their neighborhood in Houma, Louisiana, which was heavily damaged as Hurricane Gustav passed through, September 1, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Wallheiser (UNITED STATES)We seem to hear more and more about natural weather disasters – are these signs of global warming? 

Or do they just illustrate the unpredictability of the weather?

Luckily, Hurricane Gustav doesn’t seem to have inflicted devastation on the U.S. Gulf coast comparable to Katrina in 2005. On the other side of the world, the worst floods in India’s Bihar province in 50 years have displaced about three million people and killed at least 90.

Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, says that more powerful hurricanes and more floods are in line with predictions by the U.N. Climate Panel of ever more disruptions linked to a build-up of greenhouse gases.    Flood-affected people wait for a rescue team at Chondipur village of Madhepura district in India’s eastern state of Bihar August 31, 2008. Authorities struggling to provide aid after devastating floods in Bihar said on Sunday they needed more boats and rescuers to help hundreds of thousands of people still marooned in remote villages. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri (INDIA)