Opinion: From Dust Bowl to Superstorm, a History of Good Advice Ignored

R. William Potter | July 26, 2013 | Opinion
Perhaps only the watery equivalent of a massive dust storm will awaken our leaders to very real dangers

In his award-winning book “The Worst Hard Time,” author Timothy Egan recounts the many travesties and tragedies of the Depression-era Dust Bowl.

Two in particular are hard to forget.

First, there was the claim by government officials that “the rain follows the plow.” This colossal fraud helped draw thousands of internal immigrants to Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas to buy cheap, virgin land deemed ready for plowing under.

But the rain did not follow the plow. What followed the plow was an inevitable and wholly predictable drought.

The second occurred during a Capitol Hill hearing where FDR lobbyists were making scant progress persuading Congress to finance relief for dustbowl farmers. Suddenly, daylight turned to darkness as a dust storm carrying tons of Midwestern topsoil descended like a gritty curtain over Washington. A relief budget was quickly passed, along with several programs to prevent future Dust Bowls, such as the Soil Conservation Service.

New Jersey planners and politicians would do well to keep those two vignettes in mind as they rush to rebuild the Jersey Shore devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Gov. Chris Christie, in particular, has been an ardent cheerleader for rapid reconstruction of coastal communities hard hit by last fall’s perfect storm — Sandy followed quickly by a thundering nor’easter.

The damage done, shore towns like Belmar, have rushed to rebuild and replace shattered boardwalks, roads, amusement parks, and infrastructure without much regard to any lessons learned from the havoc wreaked by the superstorm. Meanwhile, important and timely advice from nonpartisan organizations seeking to avoid more tragedies after the next extreme storm, has been largely ignored.

New Jersey Future (NJF) and the New Jersey Association of Floodplain Managers (NJAFM) have repeatedly filed comments with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Community Affairs, (DCA) and the governor’s office imploring the state not to “return to normalcy” and rush to rebuild.

They kept reminding the state that all coastal planning worthy of its name must take into account “future sea-level rise and extreme storm events” capable of doing billions of dollars in damage and causing loss of life.
Otherwise we are simply setting ourselves up for more of the same, later if not sooner.

By now, the litany is familiar: Thousands of beachfront homes swept away, roads washed out so that emergency crews couldn’t reach the stranded, extended loss of electricity and natural gas, flooding of community centers, loss of life, and billions of dollars in property damage. All this, followed by the inevitable (and inescapable) sight of the governor on TV, calling on Congress and the president to extend emergency federal aid to the stricken state.

And what has been the state’s reaction thus far to the sage advice from NJF, NJAFM and others? As one informed observer told me off the record — because his organization is hopeful of “assisting” the Christie administration — “We haven’t seen any indication that the state is planning for the effects of global climate change and sea-level rise.”

There is no excuse for the lack of forward-looking leadership at all levels of government — from municipal town halls up to and including the top departments of state government, and, yes, the governor himself. Most have been wrapped up in a frantic rush to rebuild by Memorial Day, doubtless encouraged by the meaningless slogan “Jersey Strong.”

Remember “rain follows the plow?”

Perhaps the worst example of this willful disregard for a future in which storms like Sandy are more frequent and intense — unless we come together now to arrest global warming — is a singularly bad piece of legislation that swept through both houses with only five dissenting votes and now awaits the governor’s signature to become law.

This bill is S-2680/A3933. Instead of guiding development away from hazardous flood-prone areas, it does precisely the opposite.

Cosponsored by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from Bergen, Hudson, and Monmouth counties, the legislation’s official synopsis says it well: “This bill allows development on piers in coastal high-hazard areas in certain urban municipalities.”

A more vulnerable location for human habitation than “piers” can hardly be imagined.

Citing the “public policy of this state to encourage development,” the bill permits “housing, hotels, motels, and mixed-use, and commercial development on piers over large rivers in special urban areas” (municipalities in Bergen, Hudson, and Monmouth) provided the locality “has adopted an ordinance that allows for such development.”

A Star-Ledger editorial, calling on the governor to veto the bill, summed it up this way: “Incredibly, our lawmakers have not only failed to advance any significant curbs on risky development in the wake of Sandy — unlike New York, which rolled out an extensive plan months ago — they’re actually advancing weaker protections that put more people in harm’s way.”

I wonder what it will take. Perhaps only when a watery equivalent of a massive dust storm comes flooding down on the Statehouse during a legislative session or gubernatorial press conference will the lessons of Sandy finally be learned by those we call our leaders.