The Bell is Tolling
It’s personal now. We’re the proverbial canaries in a coal mine, perched down here on a barrier beach. We’ve been watching sea level rise and beach erosion for some time now. Sandy just blew the sand dunes between Gilgo and West Gilgo Beach flat out into Ocean Parkway. The Atlantic is now licking the side of the exposed, buckled roadway, giving it a taste of unobstructed ocean surge on to Long Island’s ‘mainland’.
The surge from Great South Bay left behind hundreds of millions in damages in South Shore communities like Babylon Village where our twins go to school. Considering that 22mi West down the coast at Breezy Point 110 houses burned down, things could’ve been way worse for us. “Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” Donne wrote. “It tolls for thee.”
I’m a sustainability director living unsustainably on a spit of sand between ocean and bay. Just driving our small, efficient cars to the mainland requires an extra 400 gallons of gas yearly between me and my wife. That adds almost 15% to our carbon footprint if, as I estimated five years ago, we, like average Long Islanders, emit 13.67t CO2/yr, or double the reported footprint of our neighbors in the city.
I was born in the city overlooking the East River and grew up with a view of the Hudson. Like many, I’ve always needed to be by a body of water. I had lived in cities most of my life, before moving with my young family to the barrier beach where I had summered since I was a kid. I particularly relish the quiet isolation of the off-season, the big sky that goes on forever offering world-class sunsets behind the Manhattan skyline.
An environmental purist in Papa Cuomo’s administration proposed banishing all residents from our barrier beaches rather than extend leases a couple of decades back. Barrier beaches should be for ‘passive recreation’, permitting drive-by viewing only, no parking or beach-going. A half-dozen years ago a Babylon Town emergency responder made a comparable rumbling when I came across him taking measure of beach depth and littoral drift.
This encounter inspired “Barrier,” a tale about a 10yr-old, budding naturalist living on a barrier beach who makes the acquaintance of a grumpy environmental engineer and they debate the natural order of things. Who will replace the grump if no one has been brought up caring about this place, the 10yr-old wonders? Philosophical barriers break down over time as each comes to learn from the other. Then, late one summer, a category 3 hurricane compels them to depend on one another.
We just witnessed a variation on this theme as the lean one joined hands with the mean one to reach out to all those devastated by Sandy in Jersey. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,” Samuel Johnson reminds us, “it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Having slipped the noose this time around, I am left to reassess assumptions I had drawn from decades on the water’s edge.
We now know that 900 mile-wide Sandy is the largest Atlantic storm in recorded history fueled by unprecedented late-season ocean-expanding warmth (+5°F) augmented by elevated levels of atmospheric moisture which was driven into a most unusual left turn by a “3-sigma” blocking high over Greenland following the largest Arctic sea ice melt in human history. Having seen decades of hurricanes spin up the 45° Jersey coast and head East I didn’t, frankly, buy that one would take a ‘louie’ and head West into New York harbor. I can be excused for having gotten one part of the puzzle wrong as conditions have changed radically.
The other part I now know to be misguided is my worst case scenario. In advance of hurricanes, folks always offer shelter on the mainland and once it’s blown through, they’re the ones with the damage while we escape dry and unscathed. So I’ve remained, as I did through Sandy, based upon the calculus that I wasn’t going to die, given my house of cinder block walls connected with steel I-beams and cross-hatched with 3”x14” old-cut redwood beams.
A post-Sandy bike ride down the buckled and duneless Ocean Parkway, clued me to the new abnormal. Not only will the ocean have its destructive way but so will its swollen sister waterways. No one in proximity of water is safe. Look at the Long Island Sound invasion of King’s Point. Look at the inundation of Hoboken well North of the New York Harbor on the Hudson.
It was remnants of the old Coast Guard Station Gilgo emerging from the depths of swept sand that presented a most apt epitaph for this new Frankenstorm. Once a mighty turreted brick castle by the sea, its skeletal foundation evoked Shelley’s lines:
“My name is Ozmandius, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
A climate activist called out at a Romney rally recently and was booed and drowned out by chants of “USA! USA!” You think anyone was shouting this chant at Sandy as she bore down on the Jersey Shore? Deny it, debate it, delude yourselves, but know this from someone who has been ringside at ground zero here on the barrier beach for 55yrs. The ocean is invading your shores, America, more certainly than any other threat you may choose to distract yourselves with. Forty some odd years ago, two commercials told us all we need to know: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and “You can pay now or you can pay later.”
All photos by Dorian Dale. Top photo: Foundation rubble from the old Gilgo Coast Guard Station