The Post-Sandy Summer by the Shore

This past Saturday morning in Long Beach New York, the first five blocks of the 2.2-mile boardwalk was reopened. The Long Beach Boardwalk is the symbolic heart of this shore community and its re-opening has enormous meaning to many of us. All over the TV, we hear that Chris Christie's New Jersey is "stronger than the storm." As the governor channels his inner Springsteen into a theme song to attract tourists to the shore, we'd like to think that we can overcome the force of nature. We should never underestimate the force of human determination, but we also need to respect the power of Mother Nature. My summer home is on a block on the West End of Long Beach where 16 of 45 homes remain unoccupied. We may be down, but we're not out. This summer, the entire town is one big construction site. In fact, the foundation and frame of my next-door neighbor's soon-to-be reconstructed home is now completed. Many of Long Beach's empty homes are being raised, renovated or re-built. The town and beach have been busy this summer, but beneath the brave front, there is an undercurrent of fear and sadness that cannot be ignored.

There is this sense that something precious could disappear forever. These summers at the shore are surely about good times, relief from the heat of the city, and more than a few forms of alcohol-fueled refreshments. But for many hard working people in this part of the country, these special places are really about friends, family, loyalty and tradition. These are places where we put work aside for a few days, and play with our kids on the beach, teach them how to ride their bike on the boardwalk, and share frozen drinks on the shore served in red plastic cups designed to hide the evidence. These are places where families and friends return each summer, to have fun, catch up and savor the passing of time.

Before the millionaires came in and built their waterfront homes, these were places of modest bungalows built close enough to walk to the beach, but far enough away to offer a little protection from the storm. But clearly there was no protection from the Superstorm. And many people here in Long Beach and on the Jersey Shore are worried about the next storm. We survived one huge hit, but it is not clear that we are ready for a second one. Some say that living this close to the ocean is unsustainable in a world that is inexorably getting warmer. Sustainable or not, most of my neighbors are determined to stay. So am I.

I question the inevitability of climate change, not because I question the science, but because I believe the science is quite certain. Human beings and our fossil fuels are changing the planet's climate. The beach is one place we are seeing the impact today. If we do not get off of fossil fuels soon, we will all live on waterfront property and we will have a global problem of climate refugees. The people who are abandoning the shore in New York and New Jersey and those that moved from New Orleans and other Gulf communities are the early version of the American brand of the climate refugee. They are far from the first, and if we don't get to work, they will be far from the last.

Part of the work we need to do is to reinforce our infrastructure and build our communities and homes to be more resilient and better able to withstand extreme weather events. Part of this job is includes building the organizational capacity to predict and respond to storms and to quickly reconstruct damaged communities after severe storms. Our first response capacity is excellent, but our ability to quickly rebuild is pathetic.

But the real heavy lifting is reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses and transitioning to a fossil fuel-free economy. While the urgency of this need is apparent to my neighbors in Long Beach, the radical right in the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing to stop EPA's effort to regulate greenhouse gasses, by de-funding the agency. The anti-government zealotry of these folks will never cease to amaze me. The millions of people in America that live near the shore need an active and intelligent government taking proactive steps to protect their homes and communities. They can't afford the luxury of an anti-government ideology. This Congress reminds me a little of the isolationists before World War II that thought America could avoid a fight with totalitarian governments in Germany and Japan. They refused to look ahead and see the threat posed to our way of life. They tried to ignore the gathering storm. Does that sound familiar? Without an active American government, totalitarianism would have triumphed. Without a concerted government effort to start the transition to a renewable energy economy, global warming will overwhelm us. If that happens, no one will sing about being stronger than the storm.

Today, the gravest threat to our way of life is not a foreign army, but our inability to recognize the need to grow our economies without destroying the planet. The transition to a renewable economy requires an active and intelligent government. It requires a federal government capable of working with the private sector and providing leadership to state and local governments. We see precious little of that today. What we see is small-minded ideologues competing for power and fighting symbolic battles over irrelevant issues.

Meanwhile, back on the shore, people are struggling to regain their bearings and resume a way of life they have worked hard to build and are reluctant to abandon. The signs of grass roots community activism and neighbors helping neighbors are everywhere here in Long Beach. People are more engaged with each other than ever before, gravitating toward neighbors as they recognize how much they value their home and community, and how precious and vulnerable it has turned out to be.

We may have been stronger than the storm that just passed, but no one here is confident that we will be able to withstand the next storm. If a Superstorm resembling Sandy hits within the next five years, the real estate values of these shoreline communities could completely collapse. If that were to happen, the tax base and basic services -- water, transport, waste, education and public safety -- would rapidly decline. That fear is just barely beneath the surface of public awareness in our shore communities.

Meanwhile, many of us sit on the beach, listen to the sound of the surf and watch another generation of young people learn to love the sights, sounds and sensation of summer at the shore. I watch Governor Christie speak about summers at the beach and I know he and I share a strong emotional attachment to a very special place. I hope and pray that the governor is right and we end up being stronger than the storm. My real concern is that being stronger is not enough; we've also got to be smarter than the storm.