2005-03-25 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

I recently read an interesting article from the Associated Press. It appears that more and more people are taking a vested interest to the dangers of living by the coast since the tragic tsunami incident in Indonesia. We have been very lucky on the east coast of the United States where hurricanes, predictable and full of forewarnings, are our greatest threat to human lives. Believe it or not, the winter storms and “Nor’easters” are the biggest threats to coastal erosion, and we’ve seen many of those this winter.

The damage on eastern Long Island beaches and bluffs will create more work for the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers.

Interestingly, more than half of all Americans now live on or near a coast, a major evacuation worry in case of hurricanes, tsunamis or other natural disasters.

Experts feel there are not enough possible evacuation routes to safely expel those in peril of loss of life. Recent possibilities to an alternative in evacuations are being explored: vertical evacuations that could send people fleeing upward in high-rise buildings rather than away from a stormy coast.

Coastal growth poses environmental and economic challenges to local governments. It is estimated that some 153 million people live in coastal counties, an increase of 33 million since 1980. An additional 12 million are expected in the next decade.

Whether it’s tsunamis on the West Coast, hurricanes on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, or winter storms on the Great Lakes, rising populations complicate evacuations and make emergency response more complex.

Road construction, improved emergency communication and better understanding of population and transportation patterns are all crucial. Vertical evacuation — moving people upstairs in taller structures — is a possibility in areas like those at risk of tsunamis, especially on the West Coast, said Richard Spaniard, director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Going upstairs in a well-constructed building can be as effective as getting on the road and heading inland. Vertical evacuation has also been proposed in areas such as New Orleans where hurricanes or floods could threaten large urban areas with limited evacuation opportunities.

Places like the Rockaway peninsula and the Long Beach island could also benefit from this secondary method of dealing with coastal emergencies, as our coastal evacuation routes are being overdeveloped with businesses.

Construction of new evacuation routes has been outpaced by the flurry of new residences popping up all over the place. Vertical evacuations make sense for Rockaway since we have a multitude of high rise apartment buildings, nursing homes and condominiums. Of course, this would take a great deal of planning and design by the New York City Office of Emergency Management to be able to sell the public on this type of safety net.

While tsunamis have drawn little public concern in the United States in the past, the December devastation in Asia has changed that, especially on the West Coast where a 1964 tsunami damaged much of the California coast.

Crescent City was hardest hit with a 20-foot wave killing 11 people and wrecking half the city’s waterfront business district. Hilo, in Hawaii, has also suffered serious tsunami damage.

As I stated before, the better-known threat to Eastern and Gulf coastal areas involves hurricanes. Just last year hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne took turns battering Florida and other states, causing 152 deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

The new population data are likely to be used locally in zoning decisions, such as whether to allow single-family homes or larger condominiums to be built in a particular area.

The expected growth will increase conflicts and put a greater burden on coastal management programs.

The NOAA considers a county coastal if it is on a coast or at least 15 percent of the county’s land area is in a coastal watershed. They don’t have to be directly on a coast.

During the next two decades coastal watersheds will see a growing proportion of retirement-age Americans all around the country. Both growth and changes in the makeup of the coastal residents mean changes in the economy of these areas. Kristen Cosset, a co-author of the study involving the NOAA, said that while coastal counties include 53 percent of the population and 52 percent of housing they comprise just 17 percent of the nation’s land area.

Other findings of the study include the following conclusions: coastal counties average 300 persons per square mile, compared with the national average of 98; more than 1,540 permits for construction of single-family homes are issued in coastal counties every day; many homes in coastal areas are seasonal, 2.1 million as of 2000.

Florida has the most, followed by Michigan, California and New York; between 1980 and 2003, Florida had the largest percentage increase in population in coastal counties, 75 percent, followed by Alaska, Washington and Texas.

In terms of total population growth in that period, California led with 9.9 million, followed by Florida, Texas and Washington; between 1980 and 2003, people between 35 and 54 years old increased from 21 percent of coastal residents to 30 percent, while the proportion aged 18 to 24 fell from 13 percent to 9 percent; Median household income in coastal states are 17 percent higher than in  non-coastal states.

Locally, coastal planning for emergencies on our barrier islands and peninsulas has been slow and retrospective.

We need an updated plan and design to ensure the safety of all our local residents to address not only weather and natural disasters, but for emergencies such as transit strikes, blackouts and terrorist threats.

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