“We are tied to the ocean,” an avid sailor and president named John F. Kennedy once said. “And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came.”
Humans have an affinity for water. It is in the genetic makeup of a species first nurtured in the watery womb. We evolved, scientists tell us, from the primordial deep. In America, it is clear: We instinctively find comfort where water flows over the earth.
But in these recent jumbled days, the collapsed houses, flooded subway tunnels and washed-out roads left in Superstorm Sandy’s wake remind us once again: Our deep-seated human desire to be near the water — to be attracted and comforted by it, to build alongside it and crave its attractions — has an undeniable dark side.
Whether it is Sandy, the unprecedented winds and floods of Katrina that wiped away much of New Orleans or rivers overflowing their banks after torrential rains in a small upstate New York community, the joy of living near the water is often counterbalanced by the increasing devastation water can bring.
“The water surrounding some of our cities is starting to be a liability,” says Daniel Stokols, the chancellor’s professor at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California-Irvine.
We know that — at least, many of us do. We see the scientists show us ample data that the planet is warming, oceans are rising and weather is becoming more volatile. Yet still we are fiercely attracted to the water. And after disaster, wisely or not, we rebuild beside it, be it in New Orleans, on the New Jersey coast or in Binghamton, N.Y.
Contractors were busy during the weekend repairing the home of Jay Shaw in Westport, Conn., after Sandy blew through. His colonial house, a picturesque Long Island Sound and lighthouse view, suffered an estimated half-million dollars damage. But he wasn’t complaining.
“It sort of goes with the territory,” he said. “I just sort of expect every five years to have a week of disaster to deal with.”
The weekend also found rocker Jon Bon Jovi singing in a concert to raise money for Sandy’s victims and saying this: “The entire Jersey Shore that I knew is gone.” Already there was wide talk of rebuilding — and ample cautions that what rises again may be far different than what existed before.
Almost a quarter century ago, people said similar things after Charleston’s quaint alleys and quiet gardens were ravaged by Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that tossed boats into piles like toys, broke houses on the barrier islands into matchsticks and left residents in the dark for weeks.
Now bigger, plusher vacation homes line many of the streets on those palmetto-shaded islands, and among the only vestiges of the hurricane are stands of still-broken trees in nearby Francis Marion National Forest.
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater and killing 1,800 people. Many areas have since been rebuilt, though in poorer neighborhoods, like the 9th Ward, the road to recovery has been far slower. The city’s population of about 360,000 is still about 120,000 fewer than before the storm.
Despite such disasters for many — particularly those who can afford it — water is a place to relax, touch nature and enjoy a side of life that the cubicle and the 9-to-5 commute can’t offer.
The U.S. Travel Association reports that, of the nation’s $1.8 trillion travel business, American people hit the road to reach water more than any other reason except to visit relatives or sightsee. In Southern California alone, there are 100 million visits a year to the beach each year.
The lure of water is why Americans are willing to wait in traffic, sometimes for hours, on stifling summer Fridays to reach the shore or the family lake house. Boating industry figures show Americans own 17 million boats, and 83 million of us went out in a boat last year.
But while the water itself is the primary attraction, there is more to it than that. There is the culture of the water, too.
It’s walking by the dunes at the Cape Cod National Seashore, riding roller coasters on the Jersey Shore or taking a spin on the Skywheel in Myrtle Beach. It’s sticky salt-water taffy and overpriced french fries splashed with acidic malt vinegar. It’s the smell of suntan lotion and teenagers wearing T-shirts with suggestive pictures and sayings that will get them kicked out of any high school in America once September rolls back around.
In the mountains of North Carolina, visitors are lured to the state’s hundreds of waterfalls, walking deep into the woods simply to see water falling over weathered rocks. We try to bring water home with radios that play the sound of rushing waves as we fall asleep and are transported to days at the shore simply hearing the Beach Boys sing “Surfin’ USA” driving down an interstate in the middle of Tennessee.
Water seems a reflection of our lives, constantly changing but in ways always the same. Walking the ocean shore at night, one can see in the distant stars unpolluted by the lights of man. Your cellphone signal is often weak or nonexistent, as if civilization extends no farther. You marvel at your place in the universe.
Man has studied these feelings attracting us to nature. It’s a field of research called restorative environment..
“Natural environments often provide an opportunity to reflect on one’s connections to things that are larger than themselves and to natural cycles,” Stokols says. “They provide a kind of sense of mystery in a sense that there is a lot of natural beauty and processes that are hard to fathom.”
On average, about 70 percent of our body weight is made up of water. We need water to flush the toxins out of our bodies and to carry nutrients to cells. Mom told us to drink eight glasses of water a day.
“We all come from salt water on an individual and evolutionary basis,” said David Helvarg, president of the ocean advocacy group Blue Frontier Campaign. “There is this deep connection. … You go to the beach and you’re a little kid and you’re knocked down by a wave, and you get up amazed and a little scared and for the first time you realize there is this world that is more powerful.”
The story of America is one of European settlers making their livings as fishermen and traders on the coast and entering the wilderness using rivers for roads and the water that supported life. The revolution that built our nation into an economic superpower took root at the river fall lines, where waterfalls comprised the fledging nation’s first power grid.
With modern technology, it’s not necessary to live close to water anymore. But most of us do. The Census Bureau tells us that more than half of the American population is clustered within 50 miles of the coasts. And many of the rest of us live near where people originally settled along a river, lake or bay.
The poet doesn’t study such feelings, just tries to get them down on paper.
“The sight of the ocean always brings me home,” South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth wrote in her collection, appropriately entitled “What the Water Gives Me.”
“My childhood was one long day with the sea,” she writes. “I even believed that the souls of the dead swam beneath the water until it touched an edge of the sky and became heaven.”
Eloquent words, infused with a darker meaning in the past week for a coastline of Americans still trying to figure out precisely what the water they love has taken from them, and whether things will ever be the same.
Associated Press Writer John Christoffersen in Westport, Conn., contributed to this report.
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