Elizabeth Rush is a professor of creative writing at Brown University and the author of an upcoming book, “Rising: The Unsettling of the American Shore.” Based on nothing more than that title you might guess that she has a vested interest in sea levels, flooding, hurricanes and global warming. In an op-ed at the Washington Post, Rush offers some advice to everyone living near the coasts which is based on the behavior of… the roseate spoonbill. It’s a strange looking marsh bird which lives in wetlands.
The author notes that over the past decade the birds have pulled up stakes and largely left the Florida Keys to move to the mainland. And she thinks you should do the same.
It’s time for humans to learn from them. That two storms of Harvey and Irma’s caliber would make landfall in the United States during the same swampy fortnight seemed exceptional at first — and then, of course, it didn’t. That’s because surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic, where many hurricanes are born, are between 0.5 degrees Celsius and 1 degree Celsius above average this year. Warmer seas, combined with higher atmospheric temperatures, feed storms, helping turn average hurricanes into spectacularly destructive events. Add accelerated sea level rise into the mix, and you get large swaths of North American coastline inundated in previously unimaginable amounts of water.
Many living in Louisiana, New York, on the edges of the Olympic Peninsula and all along the coast of Alaska have recently found themselves in the same difficult position as those recovering from Harvey and Irma, weighing the same limited choices. Irma killed about 30 people in three states, wrought extensive damage on Florida’s economy and, combined with Hurricane Harvey, racked up costs already estimated to surpass those of Hurricane Katrina. Retreat or rebuild? Some have followed the spoonbill’s example and headed for higher ground. But legal and regulatory conditions don’t make moving away from increasingly dangerous coastal areas easy. If we’re going to adapt to climate change without loss of life and unnecessary financial hardship in Harvey- and Irma-like storms, federal, state and local governments need to start financing and encouraging relocation.
If you read the final sentence of the excerpt you’ll see why this is the perfect subject for liberal ideologues. It not only offers the opportunity to talk about the fundamental evils of industry, capitalism and human beings in general, but opens the door to new government spending programs where both the federal government and the states would pay people to help cover the costs of relocation as they flee from the coasts. What could be better?
Much of her discussion (when she’s not talking about Uncle Sam buying and demolishing your house near the sea) centers on the hurricanes we’ve experienced in the 21st century and the problems that people have had with flooding. Never mind for the moment that meteorologists agree that they don’t know if changes in climate affected the strength of Irma and Harvey or, if they did, by how much. Forget that we were told the same thing after the spate of major storms making landfall in 2005, after which the number dropped to essentially nothing until now. Leave aside the fact that the average number of hurricanes reaching America annually hasn’t changed appreciably in the entire nearly 140 year history of record keeping on the subject.
Let’s just sweep all that aside and focus on the chief danger under discussion. Flooding is what’s getting worse so people need to leave, right? Aside from the Florida Keys (which have been regularly inundated during storm season ever since the land existed) Rush also talks about Louisiana. Given the damage from Katrina and the flooding which took place back then it’s an understandable choice. But since the Louisiana coast is one of the most popular examples cited, we should ask if this is really a recent problem for them caused by anthropogenic global warming. Fortunately, there is some history available on the subject. Check out this timeline of the New Orleans area levee system provided by the Journal of American History.
The first levees in that area were built in… (wait for it…), 1717. The French built them because the area was constantly going under water. Things really stepped up in the 1800s because as more people moved in, they suffered the consequences of building homes in an area which is essentially a naturally formed bathtub.
1859 – A levee breech near New Orleans flooded two hundred city blocks and displaced thousands of residents. In response, Congress passed the Swamp Act and sponsored surveys of the lower Mississippi River. The findings sparked a debate on how best to control the river—more levees versus Man-made outlets and spillways.
1861 to 1865 – The levee system was damaged by military actions during the Civil War. Following the war, the State Board of Levee Commissioners alloted funding to replace the damaged sections, but by 1870 little work had been completed.
1879 – Congress created the Mississippi River Commission (mrc) to replace the State Board. The federally funded mrc was responsible for maintaining and controlling the Mississippi. Aided by the Army Corps of Engineers, the commission sought to deepen the river to make it more navigable and less likely to flood.
1885 – Under the leadership of Andrew A. Humphreys, the Army Corps of Engineers adopted a “levees-only” policy. For the next forty years, the corps extended the levee system, sealing many of river’s natural outlets along the way. By 1926 levees extended from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans.
If you want to put that history in the context of global warming, keep in mind that this was all taking place during a time when the vast majority of oil used by Americans came from whales.
Look, I’m not saying that flooding isn’t a concern. It’s even possible that it’s a larger concern today. If people want to move to lessen the risk of flood damage they should certainly be able to do so. But people like living near the ocean and that’s a trade off. You can say the same thing about earthquakes. If you live near a fault line and are tired of all the quakes you should move. If you don’t, get good insurance and pray frequently.
But seriously, folks. Telling everyone to abandon the coasts at this point might be just a tad hyperbolic, don’t you think?