“Surviving the Storm” by Saving the Bay

Surviving the Storm
The Bay Area Council’s report “Surviving the Storm” estimates that a superstorm in the Bay Area would cause $10.4 billion of damage. Restoring the Bay’s wetlands will help protect our communities from flooding.

Four years into a record-breaking drought, few of us in the Bay Area are worrying about the harm that might happen if we get too much rain all at once, but a newly published report says that we should be.

Last Monday, the business-backed Bay Area Council released “Surviving the Storm,” a study of the economic damage that would occur in the event of the kind of powerful superstorm the Bay Area is expected to suffer once every 150 years, and perhaps more frequently as our region’s climate grows more volatile and we experience increasingly extreme weather due to the effects of climate change.

The study estimates that such a storm, dropping 12 inches of rain in a week, would cause $10.4 billion of damage region-wide, almost as much as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Santa Clara County would suffer the greatest losses – more than $6 billion – while San Mateo and Marin counties would each lose more than $1 billion, and Alameda and Contra Costa counties would each lose about $750 million.

Strikingly, these enormous figures actually understate the potential damage such a storm would cause, as the study’s estimates do not include the costs of repairing the region’s airports and highways, do not account for the significant possibility of levee failure in Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and do not factor in the additional impacts attributable to anticipated sea-level rise of as much as two feet by 2050.

The good news is that this huge risk to our region’s economy is largely preventable, and that accelerating the large scale restoration of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands is a big part of the solution.

One of the report’s key recommendations is to, “Support funding for the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority to restore wetlands and provide associated flood protection,” and the report further features the use of “wetlands and other natural systems to provide reliable and cost-effective flood protection while providing wildlife habitat and other ecosystem benefits.” Such flood protection mechanisms include the use of “horizontal levees” that integrate traditional grey infrastructure with green transition zones so as to enhance flood resiliency, increase habitat diversity, and provide public access to the Bay.

The report’s inclusion of these elements highlights the growing consensus regarding the crucial role that wetlands restoration should play in helping address and adapt to the effects of climate change. Save The Bay Executive Director, David Lewis, commented on the report: “Restoring the Bay will help protect our communities from flooding and promote our region’s economy, all while enhancing water quality and wildlife habitat. This report shows why wetland restoration projects have overwhelming public support.”

Save The Bay is joining the Bay Area Council and other key stakeholders to raise awareness among businesses, elected officials, and community leaders about the potentially devastating consequences of a superstorm driven flood, and the critical role of accelerated, large scale wetlands restoration in protecting our region.

Wonky Wednesday | Wetlands, Barrier Islands, and Oyster Reefs: Buffering the Next Superstorm

Long Island Barrier Island
This image was taken crossing over Fire Island from the Atlantic Ocean and approaching MacArthur Airport, Long Island, NY. Photo: Ken Konrad bluesguy682000@yahoo.com

Less than a day after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie tweeted to his fellow New Jersey residents, “We will rebuild the Shore. It may not be the same, but we will rebuild.” Reality TV icon Snooki and her fellow cast members from “Jersey Shore” followed suit, joining a large fundraising effort to rebuild the boardwalks and amusement parks that define New Jersey’s coastal communities. Christie’s firm pledge and Snooki’s fundraising efforts are evidence of the human capacity to be resilient in the wake of Sandy.

Yet we must look to the causes of the disaster and adapt to the changing conditions of our climate and our rising oceans. Are there places that just don’t make sense for development?

Rewind human history a couple hundred years and we find that the New Jersey shoreline, now filled to the ocean’s edge with beach bungalows, theme parks, and mansions with oceanfront views, was once void of development and rimmed with vast acres of wetlands, strings of small barrier islands, and offshore oyster reefs. These ecological gems are nature’s solution to storm events, protecting the mainland from erosion and flooding.

Wetlands are the lungs of the ocean, absorbing large volumes of water runoff during rainstorms and tidal inflow. Barrier islands act as flexible walls that separate the mainland from the sea, changing shape in response to storms, tides, and winds as they minimize the force of these natural events. Oyster reefs attenuate storm energy, slowing down waves before they hit land. While these ecological barriers have slowly disappeared over the past two centuries due to fill, water pollutants, and large-scale developments, their value has only increased.

In New Jersey, along with so many heavily-urbanized coastal regions – such as the San Francisco Bay Area – the lack of sufficient natural barriers to storm surges is in need of serious attention.  New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state, with 60% of its 8.6 million residents living along its coastline – including more than 236,000 people within 5 feet of the high-tide line. With sea levels expected to rise by 15 inches by 2050, the number of people that are impacted by heavy storms – not to mention large scale disasters like Sandy – will increase exponentially.

Hurricane Sandy is our second loud wake-up call, coming only 7 years after Hurricane Katrina. If we are to survive the future of rising seas and intense storms, our relationship to Mother Nature must change from coercion and command to adaption and flexibility. Preserving and restoring our natural buffers – wetlands, barrier islands, coral reefs and more – is one of the best tools we have available.