Human Factor, Culture Often Overlooked in Climate Debate, Expert Says

By Flavia Krause-Jackson and Fred Pals | October 29, 2014

When Hurricane Sandy came, Deborah Star Reed stayed home. Irene, the year before, had been over- hyped. Her 1919 concrete house in New York was left unscathed by Donna in 1960 and the “Big One” of 1938.

So, on Oct. 29, 2012, the retired construction worker was munching on spare ribs with a friend, having ignored the evacuation warnings, when the first wave crashed into her home at the edge of New York’s Jamaica Bay. Hours later, hip-deep in water next to a bobbing piano, she began to pray.

Reed is still relying on the power of hope over experience. Science says she’s fighting in vain against the encroaching ocean. Instead of leaving, the 63-year-old has renovated the interior, rebuilding the kitchen, and erected four bulkheads by her pier and a concrete wall along the water.

“Sandy was something exceptional, some crazy Frankenstein,” she said from her deck with a view of Manhattan’s skyline. “I think we use climate change as a way of saying to people they should leave. I know I am protected.”

Reed’s resistance is borne out by academic studies that say it’s human nature to quickly normalize abnormal weather events. She personifies the dilemma facing the 134 million Americans who will live along 95,000 miles of shoreline by 2020 and underscores the paradox that people most directly affected often find it most difficult to adapt.

Overheating Planet

Yet adapt they must. An overheating planet is melting glaciers, raising sea levels and threatening cities from Mumbai to Guangzhou. Half the world already lives within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of the sea, according to the United Nations. Waters creeped up an average 3.2 millimeters a year between 1993 and 2009; sea levels may rise by between 26 centimeters (10 inches) and 82 centimeters this century, the UN estimates.

What gets lost in the climate debate is the human factor, says Henk Ovink, a former director general of water planning in the Netherlands.

“You can get the best scientists, designers, engineers, sociologists and most well-intentioned policy makers in one room and before you know it the conversation turns to solutions and investment,” said Ovink, who shuttles between the U.S. and the Netherlands sharing Dutch know-how with post-Sandy planners. “It’s never about the people, the culture. And that is where change really happens.”

Last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to reduce New York’s greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels, calling climate change an “existential threat to New Yorkers and our planet.”

What Language

To the people of Rockaways in New York, he might as well be speaking in tongues.

“They don’t understand what that means,” said Councilman Donovan Richards, who counts Reed among his constituents. “We’re not speaking their language.”

What it means is that everyone driving a car or heating a house creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that drives up global temperatures. Yet when UN negotiators meet in Lima in December to discuss a pact to cut emissions they risk falling into a trap of failing to engage an audience with the most at stake.

New Yorkers are in the climate trenches. A 2013 risk analysis of the world’s ports said that by 2050, the average economic cost of floods in New York City would be $2 billion a year, compared with $628 million in 2005. Sandy caused $50 billion in damage nationwide, compared with $41 billion for the 1938 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center, citing figures adjusted for inflation, population and personal wealth.

Across the Atlantic, the Netherlands show one way forward.

Go Dutch

With a quarter of their country below sea level, the Dutch have been working on adapting for millennia, starting with dikes around 1200. Today, they’re not pushing the water back but letting it in with a 2.3 billion-euro ($2.9 billion) project in 39 locations known as “Room for the River.” It required about 200 families to leave flood-exposed houses. Dikes were lowered, removed or relocated to allow for a network of ditches.

In Lent, a tiny village along the river Waal about 70 miles south of Amsterdam, Marga De Boer’s 250-year-old farmhouse was demolished and rebuilt on higher ground.

“Sandbags are no longer needed to protect us like back then,” she said.

Until recently, climate change wasn’t much of a topic of conversation on the Rockaway peninsula, an 11-mile tongue protruding from southern Queens that once drew stars such as Groucho Marx to its beachfront.

The Wave, the Rockaways weekly since 1893, reported after Hurricane Donna how policeman Richard Delaney almost drowned helping two children and a Mrs. Klein said $150 of food in her freezer went bad.

Income Divide

The passage of years has widened an income divide. It takes a visitor five traffic lights to go from the wealthy enclave of Belle Harbor to the pockets of poverty in Arverne, where Reed lives.

“This is a microcosm of anything you’ll find in the U.S.: the millionaires and the third world, side by side,” said Aria Doe, founder of a local nonprofit organization, Action Center. “We all came together for about a week and then it was over.”

Now, they’re all equally vulnerable.

After Sandy, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg — founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP — called for a $20 billion system of barriers, levees and bulkheads to protect the city. In June, a Danish-led project got $335 million in federal funds from the city to start work on part of a U- shaped seawall that will blend into the landscape, snaking around 8 miles of low-lying southern Manhattan.

Attitude Adjustments

“You can make the boardwalks stronger and build all the seawalls you want, but if you don’t take care of what is happening on the inside with people mentally, then the damage any kind of climate change or disaster does, seen and not seen, is much greater than anything being measured now,” Doe said.

Preliminary flood maps for the city were redrawn last year for the first time in three decades, doubling the number of businesses and homes in high-risk areas to 67,400. The new designs require homes to be lifted to safety or face insurance premiums exceeding $20,000 a year in the riskiest zones, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency fact sheet.

With federal subsidies in retreat, many won’t be able to afford to live by the water. Reed didn’t get a cent from the government because she had flood insurance. That covered only a fraction of her damages. Since Sandy, the cost has “sky-rocketed.” She declined to disclose amounts.

She bought her home 23 years ago, hoping it would grow in value. In 2007, the 2,210-square foot one-story property could have fetched half a million dollars, according to real-estate website Zillow Inc. Its estimated worth is now $430,000.

Not Selling

In all events, locals such as Reed aren’t interested in selling.

“The Rockaways is what they know,” Richards said. “It’s where they’ve raised their families and where their kids are raising their kids.”

Even for those who qualify for aid, the outlook is grim. About 90 percent of 14,000 applications for the Build It Back program for Sandy-damaged homes have yet to receive checks. The reasons cited were confusing and onerous paperwork and delays in processing times.

As things stand, they don’t even qualify for state buyouts that would raze the homes and turn the shore into wetland and dunes. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s advice to Sandy victims was to move on and that “maybe Mother Nature doesn’t want you here.”

Robert S. Young, the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, puts it less bluntly. He says a tactical retreat may be unavoidable and authorities need to pull the plug on funds to maintain vulnerable areas.

Twisted Incentive

The inertia also can be explained by an emergency-response system he calls “perverted.” When disaster strikes, money gets poured into the knee-jerk reconstruction of homes in harm’s way. In the Rockaways, 1.5 million cubic yards of sand, enough to fill the Empire State Building, were replaced.

“It doesn’t look great for communities like the Rockaways,” Young said.

That message isn’t entirely lost on Reed. Walking onto her dock, she points to the end of her street, where there is a marshy dead-end overrun by weeds.

“There used to be a promenade here and a boardwalk and people used to walk up and down with umbrellas and only the rich lived here,” she said.

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NYC Mayor: Sandy Home-Repair Program Working Better After Overhaul
N.J. Commissioner: 99.4% of Non-Flood Sandy Claims Settled

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